I first came across this title when reading a collection of reviews Anthony Boucher wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1940s. It appears that he reviewed a number of books from Chambers and of today’s read he wrote that:
‘A baby owl’s quill, a nonagenarian dowager and a parody of the Rubaiyat [of Omar Khayyam] turn Florida into a battlefield of wits and bullets for Jim Steele. Chambers has achieved his own synthesis of the hardboiled and the slick-magazine schools, and this latest Steele adventure, (though far from another LAST SECRET) should prove exciting to devotees of either.’
I was quite intrigued to see how an owl’s quill was involved in the mystery, and this was one of the reasons I was drawn to give this book a go. That and the price was right…
Dana Chambers was one of the pennames used by Albert Fear Leffingwell, who died the year this book was published. Another book by Chambers came out in 1947, so I presume it was published posthumously. He was born in 1895 and it was only in 1939 that he began writing mysteries, though he was also an advertising executive. In this seven-year period he wrote 13 novels. These books featured Jim Steele, who according to good old Wiki starts out as a radio ad man. However, it appears that he gives up his day job in later books to take on more of a hardboiled detective role. In this penultimate book Jim is on leave from his work in Army Intelligence. The events of the book are said to take place in 1945 prior to peace being declared. It is this war context that apparently justifies Jim investigating a piece of lost property: ‘it had become practically second nature with me to challenge what crossed my path.’
‘Set in restless, reckless Miami, this hardboiled tale of James Steele and bronze-haired Lisa is the record of seventy-two frantic hours spent trying to solve a particularly horrible crime. It is a crime which the law is not aware has ever been committed at all, yet its repercussions are as persistent – and as deadly – as those of an atomic bomb. The two bodies in the two swimming pools Jim could take in his stride. The attempts to kill him personally left him interested but calm. Some wrinkled newspaper clippings got him scared. But people going gunning for Lisa made him angry: and when he got angry, he proceeded to a solution as brilliant – and unpleasant – as the original crime had been.’
The narrative is told from Jim’s point of view, recalling the events he went through. The book opens with some HIBK foreshadowing: ‘Yet no one could have foretold any such ending at the outset. Certainly I couldn’t have: I had been sitting alone under a palm tree since ten o’clock that first morning, drinking beer and minding my own business and you can underscore those last four words.’ However, I would say the overall style of this mystery is soft hardboiled, (which reading that phrase back to myself, sounds like a very confused egg…) But I think it applies well to the story nevertheless. With our secluded and guarded palatial house on the coast we almost have a Miami based updating of the country house murder mystery. Inheritance, cryptic messages, attempts to conceal past misdeeds and skeletons in the closest all appear in this book. It is decidedly less mean streets and dark alleys and more posh swimming pool cocktail parties. Moira of Clothes in Books fame would love the clothing details in this one with leopard patterned swimming trunks and Queen Mary hats. Although I should point out that these were not being worn by the same person at the same time! However, Jim and his wife, Lisa (who has come to join him on his leave), soon find their lives threatened with an attempt at a drive by shooting. There some fisticuffs of the hardboiled style but Jim is only rendered unconscious once, which is quite a feat given some of the poundings other hardboiled detectives take.
In addition John, who writes about wonderfully obscure books at the blog Pretty Sinister, will appreciate the Downton Abbey-esque badass biddy of the piece. She is not always on the page so very much, but a lot of the mystery revolves around her and what she knows of past events. When Jim introduces the tale he is about to relate we get our first mention of her, Caroline Animus:
‘… here is the true and improbable story of how Mrs Animus blew into my life, and of how – quickly and very distressingly – she blew out of it. Also of the really annoying things which occurred in the interim…’
This is a tantalising foreshadowing comment, which I found my mind returning to each time a body showed up, yet the truth behind this remark does not fall into place until near the very end. The choice of victims in this book is interesting as it is invariably never who you thought it was going to be. The owl element of the book worked well. It was not overdone yet added interest to the case. At one stage I wondered if we were going to have an impossible crime mystery, as given the location of the house at Stork Point, there is only one entrance/exit, which at the time of the crimes had no visitors. But the potential for the property to be accessed via the ocean prevents this mystery from being of that subgenre.
The book starts out in a lighter mood and includes couple-based humour, such as when Jim tries to ingratiate himself with the young Iris Animus, by turning on the charm, just as his wife arrives. However, there is very little in the way of jealousy. Lisa seems to be the sort of woman who can give as good as she gets, if she chooses and at this early stage in the narrative I thought they might operate as a sleuthing duo. Yet, this appears to be not the case, with Lisa being absent for quite a bit of the investigation.
The ending was unexpected and if we had had greater access to the emotions of the suspects then it would have been even more dramatic. Though as it is, it was still surprising. This is perhaps not a mystery you can solve, but you can certainly enjoy the ride it takes you on.