Today’s read is from another new author to me. Figuring out her bibliography is far from simple. The Gadetection website has a list of some of her titles, but it is incomplete. The tricky part has been deciding which mysteries were only serialised in the newspapers and not published as novels, and which titles were only published in the UK. Thank you to Ron and Steve, who in the comments below have been sharing their research on the matter.
Rutledge’s title is a very literal one as in the opening chapter Smokey, Killian McBean’s black cat, clambers over something twice during her nightly wanderings. The reader immediately suspects a body, unsurprisingly. True to nature, Smokey insists on being let into McBean’s bedroom at 4am and then proceeds to knock things on to the floor. A noise outside leads Smokey’s owner to investigate but finds nothing when he goes to his porch. On returning into the house though he discovers blood in his bedroom, and from there in the rest of his house. A cut paw is ruled out and it is not long before McBean suspects some kind of attack has occurred outside his home, with him and Smokey having trailed it indoors. His living quarters, I should say, are above his printing press, which he uses to print the local paper, which he incidentally is a key reporter for.
The police are duly called, but attention is swiftly diverted when a car accident is called in further away and the woman inside whilst alive, has lost her memory. Later that day the man who reports the accident is murdered and it is this crime which takes primary importance, bringing in a close set of suspects with opportunity and motive, as of course the victim was a hugely unlikeable, corrupt and wealthy individual. Even Killian had good reason for doing the man in, since he was going to foreclose on his printing press if he could not catch up with his mortgage repayments.
An early clue gives Killian the idea that the murder is linked to a woman from the past, a woman who had married the victim’s son in haste and had summarily been divorced. Where is this woman now? Killian’s attention turns to the women who have newly arrived in the area. Is one of them her? The pressure is on for Killian to solve the case as the evidence stacks up against his work colleague, who during the important time period was drunk and AWOL and very bitter towards the victim due to a past wrong. What is worse, it seems that the local law enforcement is far from diligent, happy to take an easy solution which solves the case quickly, and there is even a suggestion of them being in the pocket of the victim and his family.
I am pleased to say that this first experience with another new author has been a success! The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review wrote that this mystery had: ‘likeable characters, entertaining chatter, unflagging actions, and expert sleuthing’ and I would agree with this on the whole. There is a lot for the author to set up at the start of the narrative, but I think it is done in an effective manner, as I found it quite easy to get my head around.
Although there is more than one murder to investigate, by having one central death, Rutledge manages to create a natural set of suspects and this gives Killian’s detective work a focus. Killian’s background in newspaper reporting is utilised really well in this respect, as he is able to find out a lot through questioning people directly for his paper, or by issuing telegrams to others. Moreover, the reader can read both his messages and the responses he gets. Killian’s dedication to his paper and his prioritising of it also enable moments of humour.
To that end as I was reading, I wondered which of the women in the story would become his girl Friday. This was a hard one to predict and events change how trustworthy or suspicious the various women become. I think Rutledge’s approach to this element worked very well. Additionally, there is also the teenage daughter of Killian’s work colleague, Jean. I think she is a very sympathetic and appealing character, who has to deal with an unreliable father due to his drinking, and with no mother, it is warming to see Killian provide her with some stability and affirmation. She also takes a role within the investigation. It is through Jean that we see Killian’s kinder and caring side, yet this aspect of the story is not overdone, and Killian is still tough when he has to be – usually with uncooperative and hostile witnesses, as well as with the law. Killian’s relationship with the police is somewhat antagonistic, even from the get-go and only becomes more so as the narrative develops.
However, I wouldn’t categorise this book as hardboiled. It uses the traditional detective story formula and situates it within a small town in America. Nevertheless, due to it being written post war, and in keeping with the changes going on in the genre at this point, like other female American mystery writers of time, Rutledge’s work has an appropriate amount of grit.
This might not be the trickiest of mysteries to solve, experienced mystery readers may become suspicious of certain thing early on, but it is one of those stories where you aren’t really sure until the very end, as the evidence keeps swinging in different directions.
I don’t know if Killian is a series character or not, but I would definitely like to try more by Rutledge, hopefully with him included.