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…’
Apostrophes are unnoticeable? They’re important details, and I don’t think I’d trust a detective who didn’t notice details!
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Well I guess the remark was intended to be light humour with something like an apostrophe probably being less noticeable on a page than say a letter shape, due to its thinness. I don’t think the narrator was doing much sleuthing at that juncture.
Some trivia, which you may interesting, which I found in Hubin:
MORLEY, BLYTHE; [i.e., Blythe Morley Brennan] (1923-2002); see pseudonym Stanley Hopkins, Jr.; The fourth daughter of Christopher Morley, went on to write documentary films and later, to being an editor with Reader’s Digest Book Club.
HOPKINS, STANLEY, Jr.; pseudonym of Blythe Morley, (1923-2002); (Note that Inspector Stanley Hopkins is a fictional character, a Scotland Yard detective in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.) (chron.)
* *Murder by Inches (Harcourt, 1943, hc) [Francis Peter Marrell; Long Island, NY]
* *The Parchment Key (Harcourt, 1944, hc) [Francis Peter Marrell; Long Island, NY]
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Thank you for this information. I don’t think I knew the author was a woman. Interesting to see that Marrell is a series character also.
“…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…”
You’ve sufficiently intrigued me to add Murder by Inches to my neverending wishlist.
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I have every confidence that you will be able to track a copy down, given your ability to find hard to find books. It would be interesting to see what you make of this book.
Some further facts about Blythe Morley Brennan. She was the daughter of Christopher Morley (writer, editor and columnist), a well-known devotee of Sherlock Holmes who founded the Baker Street Irregulars in New York in 1934 that continues to this day.
She married James Brennan in 1958.
Under the pseudonym Stanley Hopkins, she wrote 2 novels and a short story “The Lady Holding A Green Apple” which appeared in February 1947 issue of EQMM. Though Marrell appears in the 2 novels, he does not appear in the short story.
Subsequently she wrote 2 more novels (in 1948 and 1952) under her own name but these are non-crime fiction.
You will be interested to read the introduction to the short story appearing in EQMM, a portion of which I quote below:
“Who is Stanley Hopkins, Jr., author of Murder By Inches and The Parchment Key? Is he, as his name would indicate, the son of the original Stanley Hopkins who was, as we all remember, an acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes? Chronologically, it is possible. How, then, explain the singular statement which Stanley Hopkins, Jr. made in the beginning of his first book Murder By Inches– that “ the only completely fictitious character in this novel is the author”? If Stanley Hopkins, Jr. is self-confessedly a fictitious character, then obviously we are confronted with a pseudonym, and that raises the question: Why did young ‘‘Hopkins’’ choose a Scotland-Yard-character-out-of-Doyle as the inspiration for a pen-name?
Ah, dear reader, there are good and sufficient reasons, and now that we have teased you to the point of revelatory climax, we are forced to play you a dirty editorial trick. We know who Stanley Hopkins, Jr. is, but we are honor-bound to keep his identity a deep and dark secret. Perhaps some day . . . In the meantime we are privileged to say only this: that Stanley Hopkins, Jr .’s father is a very famous man of letters.
We first met Stanley Hopkins, Jr. at one of the annual dinners of the Baker Street Irregulars (we warn you: that is not a clue). As the result of our first conversation with young Hopkins he promised to try his hand at a short story. That promise was fulfilled when a whole year later the manuscript of “The Lady Holding a Green Apple” reached our sanctum sanctorum. It was worth waiting for. Here is a story of New York’s Greenwich Village, of The Happy Hour bar, of the curiously supernatural events that occurred one raw November night in the early career of Mr. Malorie the art dealer, and most important of all, here is the story of a new type of detective— a bartender.”
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Thank you for the additional information on the writer. Always helpful to have these snippets on a less well known person.
Hey! Are you slowly but surely encroaching on upon my territory? Kidding. I will gladly hand over the reins of writing up obscure writers to you more than anyone else. You seem to be the crown princess of the vintage blogs…at least in my estimation. You love the genre as much as I do and are as wide read as I always have been. I’m enjoying reading your posts more and more these days. Keep it up!
All this as a prelude to say that you’ve trumped me again in uncovering a writer I’ve never heard of. Oddly (and sort of scary coincidence) I’m becoming increasingly familiar with the Morley family. I just found the a copy of the only mystery novel written by Christopher Morley’s brother Frank and will be reading/reviewing that one soon for the “Moonlighters” feature on my blog.
Yet another bit of synchronicity and serendipity in the vintage mystery blogs to mull over. It’s rather eerie all these coincidences in what we turn up, then read and finally write about.
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Well this is not the first time a royal title has been bestowed upon me within the GAD sphere. If only I could put this on my CV!
It has been nice digging up some obscurer titles, though I don’t think my TBR pile will be able to truly encroach upon your Aladdin’s den of mystery treasures. Our continued synchronicity is nice, though I have no idea how we are managing to do it!
I look forward to reading what you make of Frank Morley’s mystery novel.
Frank Morley’s only mystery novel is Death In Dwelly Lane (1952). It drew praise from T. S. Eliot, Walter de la Mare, and Herbert Read. But It s virtually impossible to get !
Frank Morley was a Mathematics Professor.He is famous for the following theorem in Plane Geometry known as Morley’s theorem:
“If the angles of any triangle be trisected, the triangle, formed by the meets of pairs of trisectors, each pair being adjacent to the same side, is equilateral.”
In the following figure, ABC is any triangle. AF,AE,BF,BD,CE,CD are the trisectors of the angles. It can be proved that DEF is an equilateral triangle.
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