Last week I kicked off the 2022 Reprint of the Year award. If you missed that post, here is a link. It explains what the award is about and includes all the key dates for voting, as well as providing readers with the chance to make their own nominations. Three of these nominations will make it into the final poll.
Before you find out my first candidate, here are the links for the other nominations given by bloggers this week:
Aidan – Mysteries Ahoy
Bev – My Reader’s Block
Brad – Ah Sweet Mystery!
Hayley – Desperate Reader
Janet – From First Page to Last
Jim – The Invisible Event
John Norris – Pretty Sinister
John – Countdown John’s Christie Journal
Karen – Kaggys’s Bookish Ramblings
Puzzle Doctor – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
When it comes to my nominations for the Reprint of the Year award, I have to admit I don’t tend to pick the horses with the best odds, so to speak. They usually are not the most well-read and I wonder if they are the ones which have fallen beneath the radar. My first nomination, this year, probably falls into that camp: Dancing with Death by Joan Coggin. She is the sort of writer vintage crime fans might have heard of but have yet to have read. Initially this was due to lack of availability as the Rue Morgue Press reprint went out of print and that was the only edition the average reader had any chance of finding and buying. However, this year another edition appeared by Galileo Publishing – yet I only came across it by chance. There certainly wasn’t much advertising about it. Nevertheless, I hope the ROYs will help to shine a light on this book and the series it comes from.
It is only a four-book series, and the writer’s only foray into crime fiction. The series is centred on an amateur sleuth named Lady Lupin who marries a vicar. The title which has been reprinted this year is the final book in the series, with the first three being: Who Killed the Curate? (1944), The Mystery at Orchard House (1946) and Why did she die? (1947) (a.k.a. Penelope Passes). This is a light-hearted series and whilst Lady Lupin is quite ditzy in her first case, I think she is a character who matures over time.
Synopsis for Dancing with Death
‘It is the aftermath of the Second World War and the country is in the grips of post-war austerity. Tommy and Duds Lethbridge have inherited a manor house in Buckinghamshire and plan on a weekend-long celebration to keep their minds off the drabness of the times. They have very little food or drinks to offer their guests, so the onus falls on the attendants to chip in their ration books…Unfortunately everything goes wrong at the party: all the invitees seem to be falling out with each other, in particular the two highly attractive twin sisters. Flo and Jo. The drinks are running low and Duds is beginning to regret that they ever thought up this house party. But in the early hours of New Year’s Day, one of the sisters is found dead, an apparent suicide. Duds realises that as well as the police, it might be a good idea to call in the services of her good friend Lady Lupin, the somewhat scatter-brained wife of the Glanville vicar…and amateur detective. The coroner seems convinced that it is indeed suicide. But Lupin is not so sure…’
So why should Joan Coggin’s Dancing with Death get your vote…
Reason No. 1: Its depiction of WW2
The consequences of World War Two is something post-war detective fiction can capture well and even weave into their murder plots. Coggin’s story, is such an example, as it is great at using the characters perceptions of post-war austerity as a vehicle for moving the plot forwards and bringing a lot of mismatched guests together. In particular it is Duds who is nostalgic for pre-war life and in particular pre-war Christmases. Yet recreating those times is easier said than done:
“Do let’s have a real old-fashioned Christmas this year,” suggested Duds Lethbridge to her husband.
“Why?” asked Tommy.
“Oh I don’t know, but life is so dreary nowadays, with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and nothing to wear, and no way of keeping warm.”
“And you think you would like to have one of those Christmases we used to have, with blazing yule logs, groaning tables and bowls of punch?”
“Well, it would be rather nice, wouldn’t it?”
“It would. You had better write to the Minister of Fuel, the Minister of Food, and the Minister of Drink and see what they can do about it.”
However, this desire for the past is not set up in a self-indulgent manner, as Coggin allows us to see a glimpse of the toll the past few years have had on the characters, such as in passages like this:
‘It was nice to see Duds eager and excited again. The war years had told on her. She had had a job at the Admiralty while he had been at sea on a minesweeper, and it was the separation and the anxiety about each other that had got them down. They were a particularly devoted couple. In nineteen thirty-nine they were still in their twenties, living a carefree, hand to mouth existence. Now they were halfway through the thirties and felt themselves older than their years.’
Moreover, it is interesting to see how Duds and Tommy’s striving for Christmas fun and relaxation put their own relationship under strain. We also see a carpe diem type attitude from the pair: ‘After all, we don’t know how long the peace will last, so let’s have a little pleasure while we can.’ Yet this pleasure seeking ends up having the opposite effect.
Reason 2: Plotting
The fact this is the final book in the series might put you off from trying and it can seem daunting to have to read three other books in order to read one more. However, whilst the character of Lady Lupin changes over the series, the plots are separate from one another and there are those such as Tom and Enid Schantz (who produced the Rue Morgue Press reprint), who argue that Dancing with Death is ‘the best plotted book in the series.’ Having re-read this book for the awards, I would agree that the plotting is particularly good on this one from a mystery angle. Nothing gets wasted.
Interestingly, Lady Lupin does not go in to full on detective mode, as officially the death she investigates is regarded as a suicide and those around her are not keen to see it as anything else. So instead, she works in the background, almost absentmindedly, particularly in the run up to the inquest. Nevertheless, this is not idle time as when you look back you can see a lot of useful information is brought out, but just in a very naturalistic fashion.
Reason No. 3: Strong Opening
Coggin gets the ball rolling with an alarming telegram for Lady Lupin: ‘AM IN GREAT TROUBLE. Please come at once. Duds.’ I felt this was a good opening as the reader is immediately wondering what the trouble is, especially when we are privy to an earlier letter from Duds, that Lady Lupin received. We also have the fun of watching Lady Lupin’s imagination jump miles ahead of the known facts before the narrative jumps back itself in time to earlier in the festive period. Flashbacks can be dull, but I think Coggin uses this device very effectively, as it provides the reader with the opportunity to decide who they think will die and what other surreptitious activities are going on. This leads on to my fourth reason…
Reason No. 4: Surprise
I think Joan Coggin picks an interesting victim, yet also one which you might not be expecting, as the narrative does a good job of making you look elsewhere.
Reason No.5: The Personality of Lady Lupin
Whilst Lady Lupin’s maturity is at its zenith in this final case, that does not mean we are deprived of her jumbled thought processes and verbal mix ups. These are more present in the opening when she is getting into a knot resolving her domestic arrangements. Fortunately, she has an income, which allows for a maid and nanny who can cope with her organisational inadequacies. However, what I think stops her from coming across being stuck up and entitled is that she is aware of her limitations, and she has a genuine care for others. I also like that she debunks the myth that a vicar’s wife must be dull, as we get fun reflections such as this one:
‘But men never understood how difficult it was to resist a flirtation at times, especially with an old flame, although it meant absolutely nothing at all. she was sure Andrew would understand, but then there was no other husband like Andrew. And of course such a thing would not arise in their case, as flirting would not be becoming in a clergyman’s wife. She sighed a little at this reflection. Still, being married to Andrew made up for everything.’
Sleuths who are the wives of vicars is quite a niche corner of mystery fiction, though it is one which sort of remerges in Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club (2021).
Reason No. 6: It is a Christmas House Party Mystery
If you are looking for a new Christmas mystery to read then Coggin’s book could be the one for you, as I think this is a milieu she depicts very well and in an entertaining manner. So much so that she got me wondering what sort of Christmas person you are…
Option A: Someone who sees Christmas through Rose Tinted Glasses
Are you like Duds? Do you love good old-fashioned Christmases with all the trimmings? Do you come to the festive period with high expectations of what it will be like? Better beware as reality has a nasty habit of cutting gleeful anticipation down to size. This can occur through encountering certain other people…
Option B: The Party Bore
This person can also be the unelected know-it-all of the group, who may or may not shove their wealth in other people’s faces. It is not something you might want to admit, but have you ever found yourself saying things like this:
“Logs […] are all very well, provided there is plenty of coal underneath. But there is not much warmth in wood and if you must have a log fire you should make quite sure that the logs are all oak. I should not think these are, are they?” “It won’t last long. I could give you the address of a man who supplies oak logs […] and is absolutely reliable. If you say you are a friend of mine you can be sure of getting all oak logs. He is rather expensive, of course, but it is better to pay more and know what you’ve got, isn’t it?”
Before giving prolonged opinions on all manner of topics it is probably best to check that your opinion was asked for in the first place!
Option C: The Party Killjoy
You are the terror of people who fall into the category of Option A, as you almost wilfully smash their Christmas hopes to smithereens. You find Christmas a total drag and you let other people know it! Yet if you avoid getting into the Christmas spirit, to some extent, then you find encounter this problem that Josephine has:
“Don’t speak to me of Christmas […] it makes me tired to think of it. I made up my mind to send no cards and no presents, and of course at the last moment I found that everyone I knew had weighed in with the most expensive presents, and everyone I didn’t know had sent cards. It was too devastating.”
Quite the problem for the socially focused!
Reason No. 7: Great One Liners
One of the reasons that I love the whole Lady Lupin series is that we get some cracking lines, which take a normal statement and elevate it into something much funnier. For example, Lady Lupin says at one point, when discussing the unusual things that happen when people grieve, that:
“I know one woman who when she heard that her husband was dead went straight out and bought herself six pairs of silk stockings. She was devoted to him too. But it just took her that way.”
On different occasions these one liners are deployed effectively to show how a character might be feeling on the inside:
‘Mr and Mrs Veazey turned up that afternoon, just as they had all finished tea. Duds went out to make a fresh pot inwardly swearing.’
Furthermore, these one liners also crop up in Lady Lupin’s thoughts. One of the best from this novel is when she is trying to write a poem for a poetry competition being run by the Good Wives Fellowship group in the local parish magazine. She comes up something good, but then panics that it is not original and that it is something that she has remembered from childhood. Quite a prosaic moment until her imagination runs ahead of her: ‘How awful if she were to be had up for plagiarism as well as trying to buy weed-killer in January. Andrew and the children would have to go to Canada.’
So seven good reasons to vote for Joan Coggin’s Dancing with Death and if you have read it, then let us know what you enjoyed about it too.
I read this one early in my blogging years (ten years ago!)–found it in a Rue Morgue Press edition. I enjoyed it at the time and wrote: This is a very nice little trip back to the post-War era. Even though the characters are faced with ration books and shortages, it is a trip to a less complicated era. There are still things that “aren’t done” and everyone dresses for dinner. The mystery isn’t complicated–and uses a trope that may seem old hat to the 21st century reader–but it is great fun, nonetheless. Loops, like her name would suggest, is one of those scatterbrained women who seems to have a knack for getting at the truth–albeit by some very circuitous routes. Like the Dowager Duchess in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey books, I love trying to follow her thought processes.
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You are a sharper sleuth than I, as I am sure I was fooled by this one the first time I read it. I hadn’t thought of her like the Dowager Duchess but you are spot on.
For an American answer to Lady Lupin, I think you could consider The Lockridges character of Pamela North. While not really a detective, her brain would reach conclusions before slower minds could follow. Then her detective friend would find the evidence to arrest the criminal.
I loved that series.
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I can see how a comparison could be made between PN and LL, yet I have to admit that whilst I really like Lady Lupin’s character, Pamela drives me up the wall! I have tried a number of the Lockridge books, but struggled to find one I really enjoyed.
A little series I’d enjoy reading, Lady Lupin sounds like a wonderful character to have as a sleuth.
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Yes she is a fun character to follow and yes a 4 book series does feel more manageable than a 20+ one. With four books you stand a chance of finishing it lol
Quite a defensive argument. I thought there were only two Lady Lupin books. Shows what little I know. I have them in Rue Morgue Press editions. Didn’t know this was also one of them. I’m guessing all four will be released over the coming years. Galileo tends to do all books in a series or all of an author’s books. I’ll try to get to this one because of the holiday theme. However, I have a Herbert Adams mystery I bought last year that is also Christmas themed that I’m reading soon. So this other Joan will have to wait.
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Yes the Rue Morgue Press reprinted all four Coggin books. Which two do you have? It would be good if Galileo went on to reprint the other three to make the set.
I’ve got Who Killed the Curate?(another Christmas mystery! Says so on the cover) and Why Did She Die? I may try to read the Christmas one this year. May not have enough time though.
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Yes both the first and last books in the series are Christmas/New Year ones. Back to back they would make an interesting comparison as Lady Lupin matures over the series. Why did she Die is third in the series – got quite a chilling victim.
Brooklyn Public Library, alas, has none; they offer me Joan Collins instead. Close, but no cigar.
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haha yes a Joan Collins novel would be slightly different in content and tone lol
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