I have been meaning to return to the work of Virginia Rath for a while, as it has been just under two years since my last read by her. Over the course of 2023 I have been doing quite well on picking up books that have been on my TBR pile for a while, so at the end of April I decided that I needed to choose one of the several Rath books that I own, to review in May. I went for today’s choice as the setup and milieu seemed quite unusual, although writers such as Ellery Queen (And on the Eighth Day (1964)), John Bude (Death of a Prophet (1947) and Shelley Smith (He Died of Murder (1947)) have also written mysteries involving alternative religious/spiritual communities.
Murder on the Day of Judgement is the second novel to feature Deputy Sheriff Rocky Allan, whose first appearance is in Death at Dayton’s Folly (1935), which was my first read by this author. Both books also include Rath’s more amateur sleuth,Theophilus Pope. To date I have also read two others by Rath: The Murders at Hillside (1931) and A Shroud for Rowena (1947).
‘Sapphira Barlow started life as one of Madame Sophie’s girls, but at seventy, after many vicissitudes, she was a revivalist of shadowy reputation. At her Coon Hollow camp in the California mountains she had gathered her Satellites about her to await the end of the world, at 3:45 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, August 26. Into this weird and fanatical group comes Rocky Allan with that engaging redhead, Eleanor, his wife. They have been summoned to the camp by their lean, saturnine friend, Theophilus Pope, who rightly suspects that murder, and not the Judgment Day, is the menace threatening the camp. The first to meet death is the potbellied and dour Rev. Saul Cheney, former side-show barker. Then, on the morning of August 26, Sapphira is found strangled, with a card reading “The Day of Judgment has come” in her lap. And Rocky, in the remote fastness of the California mountains, with no criminological accessories at hand, is confronted with one of the most baffling crimes human ingenuity could evolve.’
In the opening of this one you can see a tiny hint of the beginning from N or M? by Agatha Christie, which came a few years later. Theophilus Pope wants Rocky Allan to come alone to the Cocoon Hollow to help him on a case and not bring his wife. Yet naturally Eleanor goes to. The difference between the two books is that Tommy Beresford remains ignorant until he arrives at the hotel when he realises that Tuppence has inserted herself into his mission as well. Personally, I think Christie’s version has greater comic effect.
Pope’s telegram is brief, so Rocky and Eleanor are quite in the dark at the beginning as to what the case is going to involve. The primitive facilities certainly see our trio of sleuths roughing it. At least Rocky and Eleanor brought a tent, unlike Pope who had no shelter the previous night. Given it is his case, why on earth didn’t he take one? Fortunately, Rocky helps to build him a shelter, but nevertheless I was surprised by Pope being so underprepared.
It is through Pope and another visitor to the group, newspaper reporter Mr Doyle, that the reader begins to see what kind of woman Sapphira is. Unpleasant is probably an understatement. Her fortune is almost certainly built upon running a brothel, peddling drugs and blackmailing customers, yet the police have never been able to get quite enough proof to arrest her. Although lately they have been closing in on her, hence her sudden departure to the mountains. Not only is it hinted that Doyle lost his brother to drugs due to Sapphira’s influence but it is also likely that quite a few people who have followed her out to this remote area, are some of her blackmail victims, hoping to retrieve their incriminating evidence. Add into the mix Sapphira’s sole legatee and grandson, David, who has only recently turned up out of the blue. He is not what I was expecting, as he is much younger, and his behaviour is not what I presumed it would be. Is it all an act? This is a solid foundation for a murder mystery, with plenty of reasons for Sapphira to be bumped off.
I would say Theophilus Pope acts more like a 19th century sleuth in terms of his initial goal, which is to retrieve blackmail evidence on behalf of a friend’s married daughter. Until he succeeds in this, he very much wants to keep Sapphira alive. Naturally, he fails. Sleuths are shockingly bad at preventing first murders! They are much better at solving them and sometimes stopping secondary killings. One detail about Pope which interested me was that he wears tinted glasses. He tells Eleanor it is because: ‘I was told once that my eyes sometimes give me away but that my face ever does.’ This reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, who wears green tinted glasses in ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ (1842), for similar reasons to do with subterfuge and concealment. I was wondering whether Pope was intentionally made to parallel this earlier sleuthing figure.
Rath does a good job of staging and ordering her murders, as the reader is likely to be curious about Reverend Cheney and what his end game might be, by being part of Sapphira’s entourage. Yet he is the first victim of the book and I feel like this turns things upside down in terms of reader expectations, as you would assume Sapphira would be the first to bite the dust given how dangerous she is to so many people. However, her few remaining extra hours of life after Cheney’s death mean she becomes a much more three-dimensional victim-villain.
After the first murder, alibis and timings are gone into well, with some leads to follow up. Further deaths follow quickly on the heels of the first, making it hard for the sleuths to interview everyone and to keep a track of who is where. The storm adds to this pressure, and I felt the way they are stuck out in this difficult weather, waiting in the middle of nowhere until the police arrive, made for an interesting variation on the closed set of suspects trope. This is one story in which you definitely don’t want to be walking around on your own – especially when it is dark! Two out of the three sleuths are temporarily knocked out over the course of the book.
I think the first third is probably the strongest part of the book, as despite the third death I had a growing feeling that the case was not really moving forward, and that the mystery plot was stalling. Moreover, the clue which gets the case moving again is good, but I think maybe it was not delivered in the most satisfying way.
The slower middle does impact the powerfulness of the ending, but it is still pretty dramatic. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review describes it as ‘a rather horrifying end’, whilst John Norris who blogs at Pretty Sinister wrote about this book that:
‘The finale and the reveal of the murderer is Rath’s final touch of subversiveness in what amounts to a Great Depression era version of transgressive fiction. When the chilling denouement comes it’s as if she delivered a final slap in the reader’s face.’
The ‘slap’ is something I get, though I don’t think for the same reasons. It comes down to how fair you think the solution is. It is something you can guess at, as both my hunches about the case were correct. But I don’t think it is fairly clued, as the solution is concealed due to the limitations of what prose can convey (or in this case conveyed). I also felt some information was held back from the reader. In addition, looking back on the novel as a whole I think we had one sleuth too many and that the mystery might have been better if it had just featured Rocky and Eleanor (the latter of whom is good at drawing information out of the suspects). Pope is not really needed, and he takes something of a backseat when he gets a bad cold after being left unconscious in the rain over night for a few hours. Despite the interesting setup I came away from this book underwhelmed.