Yes it is another review of an obscure American author and once again it is due to Anthony Boucher, who reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle. Boucher mentions its ‘affable amateurs’ in charge of the sleuthing and concludes by remarking that its ‘main novelty, an extraordinary new wartime use for cats.’ I have to admit it was the novelty feline factor which encouraged me to track down a copy.
‘The scene is on Long Island near a defense plant. Clues are many and curious, and the plot is contrived with unusual care. Why do cats of the neighbourhood disappear? What does the ruler with divisions of thirty-seconds of an inch mean? Who is the secret visitor Ed Sharp entertained the night he was murdered?’
This wartime set mystery is narrated by Angela Thorpe. She is classicist, she has completed her BA and is waiting to take up a teaching position soon. Over the summer she is living at home with her parents. They own a tortoiseshell cat named Toby. The previous summer she had worked on the local newspaper and it is this which gives her an opening into the murder of her former boss, Ed Sharp, owner and editor of the Cheswick Herald. She is not a HIBK kind of narrator, although she does tantalising open her tale with the following:
‘Looking back now, yes, I suppose it was that blasted Latin quotation – or misquotation – that finally got me entangled in the whole rotten mess […] Probably it was the only thing that could finally have lured a potential classics teacher like myself from her books.’
This clue is typical of others in the story which are invariably physical/concrete, but are decidedly odd either in nature or in where they are found. For example, the ruler mentioned in the synopsis above, is a curious clue due to the additional divisions marked upon. That and the fact that it is found underneath the victim’s desk next to a foreign kippered herring tin label. The author is good at making these everyday clues appear unusual.
Also during the opening chapters we hear the news that a new mystery man has moved into the neighbourhood and there is a Pride and Prejudice vibe to this facet of the plot, with information about him being drip fed through different people, directed towards a largely uninterested Angela. The news of the first murder is also disseminated in an effective manner through various members of the local church guild.
The mystery man is called Francis Peter Marrell and it is he who will go on to be the primary amateur sleuth. Angela performs more the role of assistant and Watson, which suits her down to the ground, as she is very reluctant to get involved to begin with, fearing her upcoming job may be on the line. Her friend on the newspaper fails to excite her interest, so it is down to Marrell to achieve that and the Austen-esque frisson between them during their first meeting, indicates early on that he is liable to be her love interest. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review describes them thus: ‘Percipient amateur, with help of pretty girl narrator, breeze through stirring situation.’
This does not mean things will be plain sailing for them, though. Midway through the book and Angela definitely gets the feeling she is being taken for granted and takes Francis Peter to task:
‘Peter, you know very well that I don’t mean to seem like an utter wet blanket. I want to help, but I don’t want to have to trot about after you merely as a sort of observer. My time is as valuable as anyone’s, and I’m going home to get some work done. let me know if I can really be of some use.’
I found this quite refreshing as female sidekicks of this time do not always voice this type of disgruntlement. Although, I would not say Angela builds much upon it. Her enthusiasm for sleuthing as a consequence, sometimes wanes, such as when she writes:
‘After all, when one has tramped all around a beach with a man who acts as if one didn’t exist, the least one should expect to find ought to be a cipher in a bottle, or a cache of dynamite, or even just a Nazi primer for spy technique. I still don’t blame myself for feeling disappointed at the herring tin. I tried hard to look somewhat interested…’
Nevertheless, on other occasions, spending time with Francis Peter pushes her out of her comfort zone, putting her into social situations she would not normally experience.
Early on in the story, Marrell formulates the theory that the odd goings on are related to a 5th columnist sabotage plot, and that Sharp was murdered because he knew too much. There are some indicators that such a conspiracy is taking place, but I felt Francis Peter came to this conclusion quite quickly, on little substantial evidence. I also feel he could have been more forthcoming about what he discovers, explaining more as he along the way. However, Marrell and his sidekick do go into the mystery thoroughly, giving this thriller greater detecting elements than you might expect. Whilst there is not as clear a trail to the killer as I would have liked, I was equally very impressed with how a cat is used to bust someone’s alibi. The way in which it does this is perhaps even unique, as I have not come across it before and it is more unexpected than say how Erle Stanley Gardner uses a young feline in The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942).
Naturally I can’t tell you what cats were being used for in this book as that enters spoiler territory, but it is not for anything gross. This element of the story appears early but is not resolved until near the end. Anticipating That Darn Cat! we also have several scenes in this tale in which our protagonists are trailing various cats, including once during a blackout. With glow in the dark soil and an interesting and plausibly creative use for the ruler, this mystery seemed to me quite John Rhode like in parts.
So as Boucher says this book is ‘unassumingly pleasant’ and The Criminal Record sums it up as ‘diverting.’ It is a nice way to spend an afternoon, with a narrative that disperses its dramatic revelations well and has some interesting character reversals. On a final note I did wonder, based on the ending, whether the novel was trying to encourage its readers to participate in the war effort more.
N. B. My favourite description of the novel: ‘The secretary, Miss Preakness – who is as unnoticeable as an apostrophe and made of the same general shape…’