Originally Published 1951
Henry Gamadge #16
Preceded by Death and Letters
Young Rena Austen, newly wed, is afraid she’s made a terrible mistake. Her husband, once a dashingly romantic figure of a wounded war hero, has become a moody lay-about, and they are sharing a gloomy house on the Upper East Side of New York with his unpleasant, always-there family. When her husband reacts in a frighteningly angry way to Rena pulling a particular volume off the library shelf, she has had enough, and flees her home in fear for her life. Thankfully, Henry Gamadge is on hand to solve the mystery of the book—and the dead body that inevitably turns up.
I have expressed the enormous sense of envy I feel towards several of my blogging chums who are able to pop down to a market stall or a charity book shop and happen upon actual vintage mysteries. The few secondhand bookstores near me rarely have anything dating back before 1980 (Agatha Christie titles, wonderful though they are, do not count). I can, of course, order things online but that limits the opportunities for discovery which is one of the great pleasures of book shopping for me.
It was a nice surprise for me when I stumbled upon a copy of Elizabeth Daly’s The Book of the Crime the other day at a local used bookstore (the edition pictured is a much more recent reprint from Felony & Mayhem than the one I purchased). While starting with the last book in a series is hardly ideal, I couldn’t resist the acquisition and then felt the need to justify spending the money by actually reading it.
The Book of the Crime introduces us to Rena Austen, a young woman who married a wounded war hero only to find that their relationship quickly turned sour. One day he discovers her looking at a book in their library and becomes very intense with her, frightening her enough that she decides to tell him that she wants to leave him. He storms out, locking her in the room, forcing her to escape and run to the only person she can think who might help – Henry Gamadge who had been a client of a publisher she used to work for.
This story has a somewhat unusual structure in that while there are clearly odd things taking place in that house in the Upper East Side, we are over halfway through the novel before Gamadge has an obvious crime to investigate. Up until that point our focus is on learning about the characters, trying to understand what about Rena holding that particular book prompted such an explosive reaction from her husband and observing how Henry supports her and steers her in trying to secure a more permanent separation from her husband.
That last point is particularly important as securing Rena’s long-term security is Henry’s main priority in investigating this situation and he does so already being convinced that her husband must be guilty of something. This is a completely understandable assumption based on his behavior and it quickly establishes Henry’s role in this story as a champion of the woman involved in the case rather than as a more dispassionate, process-driven detective.
These early chapters of the novel also provide information about recent developments in Henry Gamadge’s life which sadly were a little lost on me. This is, of course, not Daly’s fault. She was not responsible for me jumping on board at the end of this series and I think they seem well written. If nothing else, it is certainly a pleasant novelty to encounter a sleuth with a genuinely happy home life. I will be curious to see whether other titles in this series also feature these glimpses of his domestic life or if it was unique to this novel.
I found Henry Gamadge to be quite an appealing protagonist and can understand the comparisons people draw with Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, though I think he seems a little less affected. His response to Rena’s problems is quite admirable, particularly given he hardly knows her, and I think that makes him feel all the more likable. I also enjoyed that this mystery absolutely caters to his particular skill set, making his background a really important part of the story.
Turning back to the mystery element of the novel, I think the start of this book presents us with an intriguing situation though not much in the way of firm, physical clues. Instead this is the sort of case where the reader must infer things about the case based on the situation and what we can observe of characters’ relationships with each other.
That approach often works well and I did find some of the deductions to be quite clever but I do think the overall structure of the plot naturally suggests the answers to several key plot points. I do think though that if you haven’t already guessed at the solution, the explanations given for how the different elements of the story related to each other seem quite logical and clever. I was ultimately satisfied with the reasons given about what took place and why.
One part of the book that did disappoint however is the introduction of a murder late in the narrative. There are some positives that come with this plot development in that it gives a little focus to the investigation element of the story and I think it plays an important role in several of the novel’s subplots but the victim is unknown to us at first meeting, meaning that their death has little emotional impact. We do gain a little information about this character in subsequent chapters never so much that I felt that they really came to life.
Happily I found the initial mystery concerning Austen’s erratic behavior sufficiently interesting that I could overlook the relatively uninteresting murder. I enjoyed the process of discovering more about him and his family while I felt it built to a solid, if not exactly thrilling conclusion that lacks surprises.
On the whole I enjoyed it more than enough to go and seek out more of Daly’s work which I expect to do in the near future.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Librarian/Bookstore Owner/Publisher (Who) – Gamadge isn’t exactly any of these but I think being a rare books expert is clearly along the same lines