Today I am continuing my re-read of the Jane and Dagobert Brown series, with a view to producing a ranked list, (you know how much you love them!). Just one book left to re-read, so hopefully it won’t be long.
This second mystery sees Jane and Dagobert travelling to Detroit to visit his aunt. Yet something tells Jane that Dagobert is keen to take the scenic route, as they are going there from New York, but via New Mexico. As they reach Alamogordo, Jane begins to wonder if Dagobert wants to travel this way, as Miranda Ross lives in the area. Dagobert was apparently quite smitten on Miranda when she was a WAC during the war. Jane is less so, writing that:
‘It’s not that I have anything against Miranda personally. Apart from the fact that she is extravagantly beautiful, fabulously rich, and terrifying clever, she is doubtless a very worthy creature.’
Added to which in the local area, she is seen in an almost saintly way, given how much help she offers those around her. Yet if she was such a nice person why is she stabbed in the chest, within hours of the Browns arrival? (And no Jane has not murdered her out of jealousy!)
As is common with writers, Ames used a setting which he was familiar with, as he moved to New Mexico with his family in 1917. He also lived there for a time when he was an adult. Ames worked in British Intelligence in WW2 and Tom and Enid Schantz, who reprinted this title in their Rue Morgue Press series, suggest that Dagobert is partially based on the author. Like his creation, Ames had a wide range of creative and intellectual interests over his lifetime and they were both interested in “almost all fields except work.” In keeping with other books in the series, Dagobert is his usual unpredictable and maverick self, which at times makes Jane anxious:
‘I don’t know why I always feel nervous and apprehensive when Dagobert goes off on his own. I suppose I have a melodramatic turn of imagination or perhaps I’m the clinging type. Actually nothing very tragic ever happens on these occasions. Sometimes he comes back with an early manuscript of as unknown Florentine poet which was such a bargain – say, the exact amount we have in our current bank account – that it would have been madness not to buy it. Once he “picked up” a Tudor four-poster which was too large for our bedroom and meant moving into a new flat. At worst he returns with a political refugee, generally ones who speaks only Rumanian or Hungarian, whom we feed for a while and put up on the sofa in the study.’
Though, as those of you who have read other mysteries these two are involved in, Jane mainly enjoys their less than conventional lifestyle. The way their lives eschew financial security could in fact be considered quite counter cultural.
One of the many strengths of this series, is the complexity Ames brings to depicting the relationships of his characters, not least the marriage of Jane and Dagobert. Ames handles well the potential infatuation of Dagobert with Miranda, dismantling obvious developments and in fact Dagobert’s more intricate reaction to Miranda is useful in revealing something of her own character. In her head, Jane builds up a grand passion between the pair, but when Dagobert finally shares about it he says:
‘I’m interested in her […] Miranda Ross is one of the most interesting people I have ever met […] She was the pet of Allied Force Headquarters. Everyone admired her, everyone who worked with her relied on her. She was unfailingly charming to everyone; she did everyone’s work. She ran AFHQ. Like yourself, I’ve been wondering what people like Miranda do when there’s no war to win.’
Yet this is not provided until Jane gets a smug moment beforehand when Miranda initially freezes Dagobert out when he announces on the phone they are in the area. It transpires that whilst Miranda attracts many male admirers, she does not have much interest in starting up affairs. She much prefers to be able to mould the lives of her admirers into the shape she thinks their lives should be, much to the chagrin of their own partners.
I think it was a good idea of Ames to only allow us access to who Miranda is through the opinions of others, and a very few telephone calls she makes. Jane, Dagobert and the reader do not see her in person until she is dead. Given the way Miranda likes to run the lives of others, thinking she knows best, this approach to depicting her character is highly effective. Moreover, I would say her manipulative benevolence, of which her family members suffer the most, is a fictional precursor to Rachel Argyle in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1958). However, Miranda arguably has more bite, though I can’t say why due to spoilers.
In this second mystery I don’t think Jane and Dagobert are working quite in harness with one another, when it comes to amateur sleuthing, and Dagobert is far more involved with the police investigation. Yet that does not mean Jane fails to unearth any important facts by herself, and her summing up at various stages is helpful for the reader in organising their own thoughts about the case. There are an array of interesting clues, physical as well as psychological and alibi ones, and the solution is delivered in two parts. Again this worked well as whilst the reader may not have anticipated the first segment, (which I had completely forgotten), knowing this information helps the reader puzzle out the second part before it is unveiled.
There is far less metafictional humour in this title, though we get the occasional amusing line such as: ‘One of the best things about gathering copy for novels is that you can, with a clear conscience, pry into other people’s private affairs.’ In some ways I think this book is a darker narrative with the relationship dynamics at play, in comparison to some of the lighter stories in the series. Although interestingly I think this darker side to Ames work is not particularly well remembered. Nevertheless, death in this tale, whilst not gruesome, is not very cosy either.
However, humour is derived through Jane’s wry observations of her social position and one of the best moments of this in the book is when Dagobert has mysteriously gone off to sleuth without Jane, and the rest of the ranch house party feel awkward on her behalf, (thinking he has abandoned Jane to drink in a bar). For example, she writes that:
‘There is something singularly depressing about a happily married woman on her own. Men are kind to her. They offer her chairs, hasten to refill her coffee cup, and try to bring her into conversation. But they do these things, you feel, out of a sense of duty, not for the sheer love of service, but because they have been trained to befriend women in distress […] When I was very young, people used to cultivate me for my own sake. But I am no longer young. I shall be twenty-nine again on my next birthday. Then exciting young men would ring me up and make exciting proposals. No people tell me about foot-and-mouth disease.’
The tone of this passage reminded me of Celia Fremlin’s The Long Shadow (1975), which has a female narrator consider the social awkwardness she generates by being a widow, when she attends parties. When it comes to writing the female viewpoint, I think Ames does a good job. in the main, given some of the pitfalls male writers can fall into when attempting to do this.
Suffice to say I am looking forward to re-reading Corpse Diplomatique (1950).