Originally Published 1937
Colonel Primrose #2
Preceded by The Strangled Witness
Followed by The Simple Way of Poison
Last year I reviewed Leslie Ford’s The Strangled Witness which I felt contained some interesting ideas and characterization, particularly in terms of the representation of her female characters. I was less impressed with the plotting however and found some aspects of the plot to be quite rushed.
Unlike The Strangled Witness, Ill Met By Moonlight can be described as a genuine puzzle mystery. The crime being investigated here is the murder of Sandra Gould who is discovered dead behind the wheel of her car in the garage in the early hours of the morning. At first it seems she had passed out with the car still running, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, but there is evidence of head trauma that suggests she was attacked.
One of the challenges the reader will face is in working out the exact timetable of the crime and who had alibis. I appreciated Ford’s use of a false alibi trick that I have not seen used before and I think she does a good job of making an apparently simple crime more complex and interesting than it initially appears.
There are a few other interesting points in the case such as the significance of most of the houses in the neighborhood being connected with a party line telephone system which we learn someone has been misusing to listen in on phone calls. The question of who was listening in on one of Grace’s telephone calls is an important one and gives rise to one of the novel’s most tense and effective moments.
The novel seems to start a little slowly though I think Ford does a good job of exploring the narrator’s unsettling sense that a murderer may exist within a circle of friends she has known for years. The discovery of a second body midway in the story adds considerable interest and while I think the killer’s identity is quite clear by the end, I was interested in learning how Primrose and Latham would prove it.
Our sleuth is, once again, Colonel Primrose who is assisted by Sergeant Buck. In my review of the last book I described Primrose’s style as intuitive rather than deductive but here he seems far more observant and active in his investigation. He frequently knows more than he lets on to our narrator, socialite Grace Latham, holding back information to see how characters react once the information is revealed.
Primrose and Grace have slightly different priorities in the way they approach this case and while they are undoubtedly friendly with each other, Grace’s instincts are to protect her friends. This leads to several moments in which we see her withhold a piece of evidence from Primrose or not share a piece of information that she has that could help his investigation. This does not provoke any serious conflict however and the pair remain friendly throughout the novel, recognizing that the other may not be being entirely forthcoming.
Ford’s depiction of the upper crust in Maryland in the mid-1930s is convincing. We get a sense of the relative opulence of their lifestyles and social lives as almost everyone is able to live a life of leisure. However these characters are certainly not presented as admirable with the exception of our narrator Grace and we see that among the social circle there are issues of heavy-drinking and suspicions of infidelity.
One other way in which the novel evokes its time and setting is in the prevalence of racist and xenophobic attitudes among these characters. For instance, Grace lists among one character’s paranoid delusions the ideas that Catholics are building a tunnel to the White House and that FDR is secretly Jewish. Other characters assume that two foreign-born characters must have secretly known each other prior to coming to the United States and both characters are treated with some suspicion based on their being immigrants.
Where I think the problems will come for some modern readers is in the depiction of the novel’s few African-American characters. Regular readers of Golden Age crime fiction will be used to encountering this issue but as the novel is set in the American South during segregation it is much more noticeable than in novels set in New York or Britain.
These characters often are described in stereotypical terms such as the servant Julius who we are told is ‘saucer-eyed and putty-faced’ and appear to have little in the way of personal traits beyond being scared of being questioned. In addition, readers should be prepared to encounter a few racially pejorative terms used quite casually by Grace to describe other characters. While the author is clearly a product of her place and time, it may make for uncomfortable reading.
On the whole I found this to be a much stronger detective story than its predecessor and there were several plot points that I found to be quite interesting. Colonel Primrose grew on me as an investigator here and I do think his relationship with Grace is entertaining, particularly given Sergeant Buck’s concerns that it may develop into romance. The setting and elements of the narration however made me uncomfortable and kept me from really enjoying the process of reading it and so I doubt I will return to the series anytime soon.