‘She had no way then of knowing that her thirty-fifth was to be the most memorable of all the birthdays of her life.’
Lange Lewis is a less well-known American classic crime writer and as such, in the UK particularly, it is hard to source copies of her books, cheaply. Nevertheless, she has been on my radar for a while, not least because of the slow trickle of online reviews that have been appearing over the past few years. I was therefore very excited to see that American Mystery Classics were reprinting this title in the summer and then even more thrilled that I received an earlier edition as one of my secret Santa gifts last year. Whilst there are plenty of Christmas or holiday themed mysteries, birthday set ones are less common. The only one that springs to mind is Patricia Moyes’ Who Saw Her Die? (1970). I am sure I must have read other birthday mysteries, but they haven’t stuck in my memory. Maybe that is why Christmas is more commonly chosen as a festive setting. Lewis’ earlier example though is unusual in that the death does not occur during a birthday party, but is something the protagonist wakes up to. Furthermore, it is different that the person whose birthday it is, is not the victim.
‘Victoria Jason, emancipated and strong-willed, has worked hard to establish herself as a leading Hollywood writer. Her husband Albert, although still involved with Grade B films, is also on the verge of a promising career breakthrough. With a house in Beverly Hills (and the Humphrey Bogarts as neighbours), a maid, and exciting careers, Victoria and Albert have a very comfortable situation with the prospect of an even brighter future. A death by poisoning smashes this idyllic existence. Inspector Richard Tucker of the L. A. P. D. is called in to investigate an extremely interesting set of suspects, which includes Victoria’s ex-husband, an ambitious starlet, and other Tinsel-town types in this brittle and sophisticated tale of love and death in Southern California.’
‘A successful writer and a B-movie director seem like the perfect match in the Hollywood hills, and with him working to produce her novel for an upcoming film, the pair’s recent marriage isn’t the only way that they’re connected. But when the husband is found murdered on the wife’s birthday, using a method of poisoning that was described in one of her books, Victoria suddenly becomes the main suspect as her new happy life comes crashing down around her. The case appears straightforward from the outside, but the LAPD investigator on the scene finds the truth to be anything but. Though all the signs point to Victoria, there’s no motive to be found. Now, to solve the mystery of whodunnit, he’ll have to dig beneath the veneer of the household and reveal its inner workings, and to understand the deadly drama that unfolded just beneath the surface. Reprinted for the first time in over half a century, The Birthday Murder is a beautifully written and psychologically astute Golden Age mystery set in old Los Angeles. It will appeal to fans of vintage whodunnits and of standout domestic suspense authors from the era such as Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong, and Margaret Millar.’
American Mystery Classics
I thought it worth comparing the two blurbs (the first one being from my own copy), as it is interesting to see the different emphasises, they have. The Perennial Library blurb is the only one to reference Victoria’s independent mind and strong personality yet does not indicate how the circumstantial evidence is stacked up against her. In comparison the American Mystery Classic blurb provides more detail about the crime itself and it is the only one to suggest that there are secrets within the household to be found. Victoria’s peril is also more obvious, and the blurb also suggests that this book gives a nod to psychological suspense or at least will be enjoyed by readers who like those kinds of books.
Which blurb do you prefer?
Lewis’ opening chapter demonstrates that it is possible to bring a reader up to speed on your protagonist and their marriage without having to devote half your page count to it. Carefully chosen words and phrases and even sentence length mean Lewis packs a lot of meaning into her paragraphs.
The marriage of Victoria and Albert was a surprise to their friends as they are opposites in certain respects. Victoria is a confident, loud ball of energy and I liked how our protagonist is not described as your typical glamour pinup model, yet is also not set up as someone whose looks we are supposed to view negatively:
‘Her short, crisp, graying hair, which looked at best as though it were being blown forward by a strong wind was described by one dazed observer as having been stirred by an egg beater […] By the time Victoria came to consider her idea adequately explained, everyone present was limp with exhaustion; Victoria would peer triumphantly from face to face, her mouth stretched wide in its engaging smile, her gray eyes bright as a child’s, quite unaware that she looked like person who had just fled from a burning house.’
I also wondered if it was unusual for the time to show signs of aging (in a neutral way) on a female character who is only 34. It is a shame this neutrality is not maintained throughout the book, but more anon.
After a paragraph about Victoria, we shift our attention to Albert:
‘And Albert was quiet man.’
For me the shorter sentence length really created an impact and emphasised the extrovert/introvert difference between Albert and his wife. Today in fiction it sometimes seems like writers don’t trust a short sentence to imply meaning and instead feel the need to over-explain. The fact Lewis avoids this pitfall was one of the strengths of the piece.
There is an attention to detail in the text and vintage clothes fans will find plenty to enjoy. For example, Victoria knows something is wrong with her friend Bernice Saxe because ‘the oddest thing of all was the fact that Bernice was clutching a green lizard bag, although her shoes and gloves were black suede, and there was no touch of green elsewhere about her costume.’ I like how these details are used to reflect character.
The puzzle aspect of the crime is not over-complicated, with its closed set of suspects, but it provides plenty of food for thought. There are Victoria’s three visitors, who all spend some time alone in the kitchen and there is also the possibility of the servant having accidently done the poisoning due to her short sightedness. In addition, lies are used in an ambiguous way as some of the incriminating evidence against Victoria is caused through others’ mistruths, yet their motivation for doing so was apparently to protect her. Naturally, we cannot, like Victoria, fully trust this. Lewis also does an excellent job with her red herrings, with some of her clues being quite slippery in nature, with one in particular making me presume one thing (which annoyed me as I thought it was a plot weakness) but it transpired that the clue meant something else. One characteristic of her writing which is akin to Agatha Christie’s is that you have to read carefully from the get-go as a lot of presumptions are sneaked past you, which you just accept at face value, rather than question. The solution is a good one, very much turning things on their head. However, I think it would have been nice if there had been more substantial physical evidence to hold it up. It is not wildly implausible, but like some of Poirot’s solutions there is a degree of it being theory and psychology based. This is perhaps why The Criminal Record, in The Saturday Review said the solution ‘may or may not be cricket.’ However, I think Lewis pulls it off.
Victoria, in the main, is a good lead character. The turn of events unsurprisingly frightens her, but she does not fall to pieces, meaning we get peril and tension without hysterics. Although it is the police who solve the case, Victoria manages to unearth quite a few pieces of important information.
I said Victoria was mostly an enjoyable protagonist because unfortunately Lewis ruins her very good mystery with the two appalling pages at the end and this contributed to the reduction in my overall rating of the story. It might seem niggly to deduct marks for such a small part of the book, but the poor narrative choices in those pages completely jar with the remainder of the novel and undo what the author built up in her strong female lead.
This takes us to the topic of what this book says about men and women. Until the ending I think it was harder to say whether this mystery was ahead of its time or stereotypical in its gender depictions. Victoria is shown to be an imperfect successful woman, who likes to get her own way, and speak her own mind when giving sound advice or insights into others. Yet I didn’t feel like the book was setting us up to hate or disapprove of her. Lewis also creates a level playing field for bad behaviour. A husband might act overbearingly and snipe at his wife, but the wife is shown to be unfaithful, only remaining with him for his money and is very self-interested in her actions. Like the protagonist of Victoria’s story (which at the start of the book is to be adapted for film), the characters in Lewis’ book are revealed to use the opposite sex for their own ends. This equality though crumbles in the final chapter and we have some ambiguity over where responsibility should lie for the death of Albert. I am not sure how contemporary audiences would have responded to that particular section (trying to be vague to avoid spoilers), but I think modern readers are more likely to question it. You could argue that Lewis questions it too, as the mouthpiece used to communicate the problematic sentiment is not a character we have been hitherto encouraged to agree with. However, given the events which follow that section it is more difficult to say what message the reader is supposed to take away in this matter.
Have you ever read a book which is great right up until the end?
Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy in this one and the puzzle side of things was clever. It is one of my favourite reads of the month and may even become one of my nominations for the 2023 Reprint of the Year awards (got to start thinking early!).
See also: Moira at Clothes in Books has also reviewed this title here.