The Last Straw (1954) by Doris Miles Disney

I am sure I cannot be the only one who has read a book by an author and enjoyed it so much that they have gone out and bought several more by them, only to then keep finding that none of the others reach the same level as the first one. It would be interesting to hear which authors readers have experienced this with, but for me that author has to be Doris Miles Disney. I really loved Family Skeleton (1949), but ever since none of the other books I have read have rivalled it and today’s is…. no different!

The synopsis my edition provides is:

‘Leonard Riggott was a big, sold man. His investments were just as solid. Yet, for all that, he was strangely elusive. Elusive to his mistress when she began talking about marriage. Elusive to the desperate young man who asked him for money. Elusive to anyone who turned to him for help. So no one was really surprised when he took it upon himself to disappear one dat. But no one expected him to reappear – as a blood soaked corpse…’

What this summary does not really indicate, is that the novel is an inverted mystery; a style Disney used quite a bit, even if not very creatively. The book commences with us seeing Leonard from Dean, the ‘desperate young man’s, point of view. This man has something shady in his past and a wife who is likely to ditch him if he can’t increase his income. He is naturally feeling sorry for himself and increasingly resentful of Leonard who has always been comfortably well off and can do whatever he pleases. So when Dean sees an opportunity to relieve Leonard of some of his wealth he takes it. Naturally things do not go according to plan and murder seemingly becomes the only solution…

This story follows a similar narrative outline and trajectory as Disney’s earlier mystery Dark Road (1946). That too is a kind of inverted mystery and equally contains a dissatisfied protagonist who regards murder as the only way of achieving the goal of maintaining a relationship with someone else. Personal finances also play a part in this situation.

In comparison to some fictional villains, I would say Disney’s are not that stupid. They don’t always have a lot of planning time, but they invariably keep it simple and with luck on their side don’t have any pesky witnesses to their deadly deed. It is to the credit of their sleuthing adversaries that they ever get caught and in this case Jim O’Neill, the county detective, has to put in a lot of hard work, alongside a few stray comments, in order to prove Dean’s guilt. I imagine Inspector French would nod in approval at his thoroughness, even if it does not take up as much page space as his does.

So why do I think this book does not come up to scratch? An inverted mystery, I believe, may be grab your interest for the following reasons:

  • You are really engrossed in the psychology of the criminal.
  • The writer produces a final twist which pulls the rug out from under the feet of the reader (and often the fictional protagonist’s as well).
  • Tension is racked up as the police play a game of cat and mouse with the criminal and it is unclear which side will ultimately win.
  • The narrative is darkly humorous.

There are many more reasons, before you all start writing in, but these are the ones which sprung to mind immediately. As you can see plot, character and writing style all play their part in making an inverted mystery a good read, and when I look at books such today’s and at Dark Road, I don’t find any of these in abundance. In both stories I wouldn’t say I got to care about any of the characters and there is little doubt that they’re going to get their comeuppance. In Disney’s favour though she does not overwrite her tales, she keeps them short and sweet. Sergeant Cuff, in The Criminal Record section of The Saturday Review, wrote of this title that it was ‘ordinary’ and that it is a ‘see-all yarn more synopsis than story: handling conventional.’ The words ‘conventional’ and ‘ordinary’ chimed in with my reading of this book as what it really lacks is a flash of creativity and surprise.

I have a few more Disney books left to go in my TBR pile. Hopefully one of them will be as good as Family Skeleton.

Rating: 3.25/5

P. S. A Query – The book has the following dedication: ‘FOR AUNTY, my dear fellow writer of the purple sage’ and I am wondering if anyone knew who this person was. Was it an aunt of Disney’s who also wrote? Or is Aunty a nickname for someone else?

2 comments

  1. Can’t help you with the dedication. I only know about Disney’s children and her life in Connecticut, not about her friends or possible relatives. The pun on “Rider of the Purple Sage” may not indicate an actual writer of books at all. Could be a joke about purple ink or writing a gardening column for a magazine or newspaper, any number of things.

    I’ve already chimed in about my similar experiences with mystery writers who wrote a great book and nothing else seems to live up to that fabulous initial read. After reading all your Disney reviews (finally caught up with them yesterday) and seeing why Family Skeleton is your lodestar I think you may enjoy The Magic Grandfather when you get to it. It’s inventive, has an unusual narrative structure, and has genuine suspense and mystery in it — even if I figured it all out. For most people the ending is going to be a huge surprise.

    Liked by 1 person

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