Leslie Ford was a pseudonym used by Zenith Brown, a prolific American author who worked from the early 1930s until the early 1960s. In addition to her Ford persona, she also wrote under the names Brenda Conrad and David Frome. Though apparently quite popular in her day, Ford has faded into relative obscurity. For those interested in something of an overview of Ford’s career there is an excellent article available on Girl Detective, Diana Killian’s website.
Ford’s series sleuth was a character called Colonel Primrose who had retired from the service and assists the police in their investigations on a consultancy basis. He is aided by an army chum, Sergeant Buck, who is an imposing presence having been an army heavyweight champion when in the service but remains highly deferential to and protective of Primrose.
The Strangled Witness seems to be the character’s first appearance although there is a reference to an earlier adventure that may either just exist as backstory or that may have appeared in a magazine or journal. GA Detection suggests that The Clock Strives Twelve appeared first. There are few reviews online and the book, like all of Ford’s, is long out of print. Whether it is his first appearance or not, Ford does a strong job of introducing her leads and establishing their relationship.
So, what is The Strangled Witness about?
The book is set during the early days of the New Deal, a period in which the American federal government massively expanded its role in the economy and spent heavily on infrastructure projects. This novel concerns one such project and the congressional fight about whether a private utilities company will be able to own and operate a site or if it will become a state concern. When the book begins a key vote is about to take place and an influential Senator is about to make a speech laying out his position on what should happen.
The politics of that decision is a little hard to boil down for an introduction but the key points are as follows. The Senator is being lobbied hard by each camp and seems to be wavering about what to do although he has previously indicated that he is in favor of private enterprise. He is secretly dating the daughter of the former Senator he defeated for his seat who is a firm vote in favor of a public-owned option and the two men are engaged in a legal dispute about whether there was vote tampering in their election. The daughter’s ex-boyfriend is a crusading journalist who devotes his weekly column to attacking the Senator.
On the night of his big radio address where he will announce his decision on the vote, the Senator is discovered shot dead in his own home. What makes this particularly strange is that he was heard delivering his radio address after he had died. Because of the sensitive nature of the case, Primrose is called in to assist in the investigation and sets about trying to understand the timeline of the events that evening.
The opening to the novel reads a little dryly and evokes less suspense and interest than I think the author intended but things brighten up considerably once the investigation begins. Ford clearly felt very comfortable with this political world and I think her treatment of lobbying is unexpectedly strong as she avoids the trap of taking sides or simply portraying the process as negative and instead treats the lobbyists and political aides as people.
The circumstances of the murder are not especially complex other than the issue of timing and here I must say that the reader will struggle to stay far ahead of the sleuth. Primrose is one of the smarter detectives out there and it never takes him long to spot the significance of a detail or clue. For instance, there is a watch at the scene of the crime that seems to indicate a time of death, yet three pages later we read Primrose dismiss this as an obvious plant. If only all detective novels understood that some tricks are simply too well known.
Primrose’s approach is quite straightforward and sensible, though it is frequently intuitive rather than deductive. In particular, he likes to ask questions to see the reaction rather than to hear the answer and seems to read a lot into those physical responses. His thinking is shared with us however and while I would not stretch to calling this a puzzle mystery, there are some nice, simple deductions made along the way.
The supporting characters vary in interest and development. Both female characters, the widowed lobbyist and the former Senator’s daughter, are shown to be firm and controlling in their dealings with others which is a little refreshing. At the other end of the spectrum, I can understand some commentators’ views that the characters from non-white backgrounds come off as stereotyped and overly simplistic.
Perhaps the biggest question I had as I read related to the book’s title. I kept waiting in expectation that the body would show up yet for the first two thirds of the novel we are just investigating the one murder. When the strangled victim finally does show up we are so close to the end that the discovery of that body and the interviews that follow feel rushed. In a way I wish that Ford had picked some other title for her book as that moment may have had more of an impact had it come as a surprise for the reader.
The ending itself feels particularly rushed and the book suffers a little from a character simply giving up the moment they are accused apparently because of their feeling of guilt. It almost feels a little too easy after all that has come before it. Still, the path to getting there was engaging and I did think the solution to the murder was quite satisfying.