Laverne Rice is one of those classic crime writers who only produced a solitary mystery nove. It is argued in the introduction by Curtis Evans that maybe she decided to quit whilst on top. After all her single title produced a lot of positive comment when it was first published. The reviewer for the New York Times put it ahead of four other novels published by more well-established detection club writers that year, (the authors being J. J. Connington, Christopher Bush, E. C. Bentley and John Rhode.) Another contemporary reviewer wrote that: ‘The author has given us not only a well-constructed mystery story with a surprising, yet perfectly logical, solution; she has also contrived to convey a vivid impression of horror, the suspicions and the suspense among a group of people, each of whom knows that some one of the others is a murderer.’ Another interesting fact I gleaned from the introduction is that Rice enrolled in a creative writing class in her 40s, and one of her fellow students was none other than Dorothy B. Hughes. Small world huh?
‘Stately, white-columned Shephard House has been the splendid Hudson River Valley seat of the aristocratic, old-money Shephard family for generations. Much to the outrage of Marian Shephard, chatelaine of Shephard House, it is to the proud old family mansion that Marian’s brother, scholarly gentleman bachelor Hamilton “Ham” Shephard brings his new bride, scandalous New York revue star Jocelyn “Joss” King. Once ensconced at Shephard House, Joss goes about drastically changing the old regime there, even to the extent of flagrantly redecorating the mansion’s renowned, perfectly panelled Georgian drawing room in art deco style. Clearly the brazenly modern Joss has got to go.
And go Joss does, at a weekend house party when the mansion is full of guests, all of whom promptly become suspects in Joss’s murder when the beautiful showgirl is discovered fatally bludgeoned in her elegant black Lelong dress. Lovely post-debutante narrator and Shephard family ward Nancy Sherwin is left to wonder whodunit—and who will be next to get done in! Perhaps Nancy’s handsome, insouciant neighbour, Osgood “Oz” Brown, or that earnest, bespectacled young policeman, Inspector Cooper, will discover the truth before the bodies really begin to pile up at Shephard House.’
Well Dressed for Murder starts out as an American country house murder mystery, with two floor plans to boot. The narration is conducted by one of the Shephard household, Nancy Sherwin and in a way which is very reminiscent of Downton Abbey, her primary concern at the beginning is the ridicule and publicity a household faces when murder strikes: ‘Family, guests, servants – their smallest privacies are invaded with the same relentless thoroughness as the house itself…’ Nancy is also far from pleased when the newspapers describe her and her mother as ‘designing interlopers, just waiting for the Shephard fortune.’
However, there is more ‘Downton Abbey’ moments to come when we find out about Hamilton Shephard’s wife, Joss, a revue star. Suffice to say she does not fit in with the rest of the household and all hell breaks loose when she restyles one of the rooms. Marian, her sister-in-law, is the most appalled by her renovation work and it is therefore all the more awkward when Joss is found dead in her Marian’s sitting room. We also get a classic Downton comment, once the servants have spilled the beans on how much everyone disliked Joss: ‘Up until that moment I had given no thought to our servants or the importance of what they would have to say.’
Naturally you can expect all manner of suspicious night-time activity, including from our narrator, who gets more than she bargained for at one point. All kinds of secrets come out of the woodwork and quite a bit of attention is given to the fact Joss disappeared, in a Christie-esque style, the previous year, before she met Hamilton. Emphasis is also placed on Joss’ activities in the afternoon running up to her death. Who was the man who dropped her off home? And what did she say to Marian which disconcerted her so?
I read the first third of this book in small chunks due to time and energy constraints, so it took me a while to become immersed in the story and another consequence was that occasionally I lost my placing with some of the house party suspects. Curtis Evans, in his introductions, comments on the ‘rigor’ of the novel’s ‘mystery plot at a time when many detective novelists were downplaying formally clued puzzles in their mysteries.’ I would definitely agree that the first third covers everyone’s alibis very well, though this might be at the expense of the characterisation to a degree.
However, I would not describe this as being a perfect puzzle mystery, and a significant reason for this is the choice of narrator. For some parts of the mystery Nancy is well placed to provide the reader with information, the start of the book is one of these sections. But when it comes more to the middle of the story, her efficacy as a narrator decreases. Whilst one of the policemen gives her some additional information in exchange for help, the police investigation is something of a closed book to Nancy and the reader. Often Nancy is asked for information but is given little back as to why it is pertinent to the case. The reader can make some guesses in this quarter, but I feel we are left too much in the dark. Nancy does not find out sufficient information on her own to make the middle narrative as interesting as it could have been. When the solution appears it is a strong one, with a number of intriguing facets. Yet the journey to this solution is flawed as the middle of the book drags at times and more pieces of the puzzles needed to be included in the run up to the finale. This is a shame as it has a lot of good components and provides some interesting variations on certain themes.