Death of an Old Sinner (1957) by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Before this review, the only book I had read by this author was A Gentle Murderer (1951), back in 2015, prior to starting my blog. But I have had two books by this writer on my TBR pile for a good while now, so I thought it high time I got round to revisiting Davis’ work, which I hadn’t made much of a dent into previously.

Cover for Dorothy Salisbury Davis' Death of an Old Sinner. The cover shows the red side of a building which has a fire escape on with shadowed figure of a man. One window has a blind drawn down and the title and author's name is written on it. The other window has a shocked woman in it.


‘General Ransom Jarvis is writing his memoirs about a distinguished career that spanned five continents and three wars. Along the way, he stumbles upon a scandal about a philandering ancestor—America’s ambassador to England who went on to become president of the United States. But a very clear and present danger embroils the irascible retired general in a deepening quagmire of deceit, fraud, and murder. Enter Mrs. Norris, the housekeeper who has been almost a mother to Ransom’s son since he was a boy. Jimmie is currently running for governor of New York and enjoying his budding relationship with sculptor Helene Joyce. A sudden death changes everything, plunging Jimmie and Mrs. Norris into a bizarre case headed up by Jasper Tully, chief investigator for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. With more lives at stake, the trio follows lead after lead into a web of crime that only the canny housekeeper can clean up in the nick of time.’

Overall Thoughts

Davis does a good job of introducing us to our future murder victim, General Jarvis, and his Scottish widowed housekeeper, Mrs Norris. Times are financially tough for Jarvis, although this we soon realise is a situation of his own making. He is poor at managing his spending and buys extravagant items such as a jaguar, which is a bold move when you have limited funds. He has even spent all his advance his forthcoming memoirs gave him. It’s just a shame he hasn’t written them yet and consequently at the start of the book he is attempting to cadge money off his housekeeper, whilst looking out for a scheme to make himself some quick and easy money. The author has a nice turn of phrase when writing about General Jarvis. One of my favourite lines is this one: ‘The General puffed his cheeks and exploded a blast of air that would have shivered Ulysses.’

The long-standing working relationship between General Jarvis and his housekeeper makes the opening the liveliest part of the novel. From the get-go we are told how Mrs Norris has doted upon the General’s son since he was a child, but ‘to this day she did not altogether approve the General.’ They also have some verbal sparring matches:

“Oh, I’’ say again what I’ve said many’s the time in this house, if it wasn’t for little Master Jamie, I’d give my notice.”

“And many’s the time if it wasn’t for little Master Jamie, I’d have taken it. Little Master Jamie is forty-two years old!”

But unfortunately, we do not get as much of this comic interaction as I would have liked. This is a pity as the dynamic between these two was the most engaging of the book.

The narrative makes it clear early on what shenanigans and mischief the General is getting up to, particularly a spot of literary forgery, but we also see him getting mixed up in more serious trouble too. His housekeeper and son are all oblivious of this when he is found dead and the majority of the book minus 30 pages is about them catching up on the information the reader already has. Alas this makes for a slow and dull investigation where no progress is made until the 11th hour when it is then all made at once. Our investigative characters very much go from zero to hero. Unsurprisingly this dampens the pace a great deal.

I had high hopes for Mrs Norris, and she was the key reason I picked this book, as I had read she was the amateur sleuth in this series. The idea of a no-nonsense Scottish housekeeper doing detective work appealed to me, so I was disappointed that in her first case, which is closer to home than she would like, her page presence is patchy, and her usefulness is concentrated in the final section. The case has interesting aspects to it, which might have made this novel  less run of the mill, but these are let down by the way the story was told. So a question for those who have read others in the series: Do they get any better?

Rating: 3.5/5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.