My last read by Disney was her first Jeff DiMarco mystery, Dark Road (1946) and today’s read is his third case, though I would say the best one I have read to date is his second, Family Skeleton (1949). Straw Man (1951) was adapted for film in 1953.
The book begins with Lucy Graham, a stenographer-bookkeeper at Hussmans’ Stationers and Printers. She thinks a man is following her home from work. It happens a few times and then mysteriously stopped. She is baffled that such a young good-looking man would be following someone like her, ‘a prosaic middle-aged spinster.’ She hopes she isn’t starting to have ‘delusions of being irresistible to men,’ an anxiety her cousin voices. The chapter ends with her feeling highly embarrassed and wishing she had never brought it up.
The narrative then switches over to Jeff DiMarco, a ‘claim adjuster for Commonwealth Assurance Company.’ Unlike in Dark Road, we do not get much of a runup to the case he is going to be involved in, though an inverted mystery does develop later. Jeff is dragged away from his camping holiday early to look in to one of their clients, Lincoln Hunter. He has recently got married and before that took out a life insurance policy. Unfortunately, he is now standing trial for murder and if he is convicted and executed, the insurance company, due to some poor contractual wording on their part, will have to pay out $100,000 to his wife. So naturally the insurance company want to do all they can to check if he really murdered his ex-girlfriend, Celia Worthen. He had motive aplenty, as she was going to spill the beans before his wedding day that he was her father of her forthcoming child. Worse he had opportunity and there are an inconvenient number of physical clues which point the finger at him.
Is he innocent? Will Jeff prove him so? And how does it all connect with Lucy Graham’s awkward moment?
In comparison to Dark Road, I think Disney gives us a more complex plot, albeit one which is still easy to solve in part. The motive provides an interesting variation on one Christie had famously used, but probably because of that, one aspect of the solution sticks out like a sore thumb. However, there is an aspect which is far less obvious and is a wonderful surprise. I felt it was a great twist, yet like The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review, I had qualms about ‘the tactic of giving away the mystery at mid-point.’ Disney writes the cat and mouse sequence of the second half very well and it is interesting to see how Jeff cottons on to and builds up his case against the real guilty party, but should Disney have held on to the suspense for longer? It is a hard one to decide on, but I think she did reveal things a bit too early.
Nevertheless, I felt Lucy’s role in the plot was grafted into the mystery well and it did not feel like a random tangent. Even though she is not a main protagonist, Disney does not skimp on the characterisation and I found it interesting to see her anxieties over being laughed at if she shares that she thinks someone is following her, at her age. I think I have also come across my first example of the menopause being mentioned in a classic crime novel, (I am sure there must be more, and I have probably missed them, but that’s beside the point). Lucy’s cousin, who is sceptical of her story actually says, ‘if you hadn’t got through menopause four years ago, I would say you were having hallucinations.’ It is intriguing not just to see it mentioned in the first place, but how it is described, as the line certainly contains a lot of perceptions about what menopause is like and what it may or may not do to women.
Jeff is an engaging sleuth and I liked how he was not just a private detective or an amateur sleuth who keeps walking into dead bodies. His job provides him with a very legitimate reason for getting involved in such cases. Moreover, it also allows for an interesting angle from which to solve a crime, as the insurance company do not get involved in these cases out of the noble quest for truth, but because they want to save having to fork out lots of money. Jeff is a bit uncomfortable with this and I think Disney makes a point of showing that he is not your conventional model employee and that justice is important to him.
The ending has rather a note of muted triumph to it, that Jeff is pleased he solved the case, but that does not stop him from looking back to the source of all the destruction that has occurred, namely Lincoln Hunter and his dalliance. There is a degree of censure directed towards him, which I found interesting.
I am not sure how the title links to the book. Is it due to the way the ending of the book upends the notion of the un-touchable, strong hero detective? Or perhaps it refers to the way the criminal’s plans go up in smoke? Answers on postcards…