The subject of today’s post, Elizabeth Daly’s mystery The Book of the Lion, was one of the books selected for me in a Coffee and Crime box. I have previously written about a couple of other Henry Gamadge stories, both of which I enjoyed, but this title stands out as being the first where the sleuth’s unique knowledge and skill set really proves important.
For those unfamiliar with the character, Henry Gamadge is a specialist from New York who investigates the provenance of rare books and manuscripts. He first appeared in Unexpected Night and this is one of the later installments in the series. By this point in his career he has had a number of successes as an amateur criminologist and one of the characters he will make use of in this investigation is someone he proved innocent of a crime in a previous novel.
The Book of the Lion begins which Gamadge receiving a telephone call from a financier asking him to handle the valuation and sale of his dead brother’s letters and papers. An irritated Gamadge explains that he is not a book dealer but, intrigued to learn that the papers belonged to Paul Bradlock, a poet and playwright who had been murdered a few years earlier. Gamadge agrees to come to dinner and offer his opinion of them.
When Gamadge arrives he is apologetically told that the sister-in-law had arranged their sale that very afternoon for the exact price the financier was hoping they might fetch. They conduct the final stages of the sale in front of him, a check for $1,000 being produced and the letters handed to the trader in a sealed box without any sort of an inventory being done. Gamadge finds this whole situation very strange and so begins to make inquiries into both the strange transaction and, less directly, into the dead playwright’s life and murder.
It is a rather curious coincidence that I came to read this immediately after Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death because the two books have some significant elements in common. For one thing, both are essentially cold cases where the amateur sleuth is drawn in by their general feeling that something isn’t quite right. For another, in both cases the involvement of the sleuth brings about further deaths that otherwise would not have happened (though Gamadge never feels the same degree of angst about his own role in events).
I think the initial scenario Daly creates for her story is very clever. The mention of a previous murder certainly intrigues but it is the behavior of the various characters Gamadge meets at that dinner that sucks the sleuth, and the reader, into the mystery.
While there is a credible, innocent explanation for the speedy sale, Daly makes it clear that the timing is suspiciously quick – particularly given that the widow has possessed those letters for over two years. There are several possible explanations explored, any of which would be fascinating, but Gamadge’s investigation sets him on a trail he could not have predicted.
This trail leads back to the literary and artistic communities of Americans that had settled in Paris between the wars and incorporates some interesting discussion about those communities, the art they produced and their ultimate fates. This is not only a fascinating backdrop for the mystery, that period of the murdered man’s life is directly relevant to the case which allows Daly to explore it in detail without feeling like a diversion from the main thrust of the plot.
In addition to the exploration of a literary community, Gamadge’s professional skills are put to the test in several ways throughout this novel. Firstly, in the assessments he makes about the dead playwright’s literary abilities and career which give us a sense of that man’s character. Secondly, in his understanding of how the market for trading personal papers works and how the process here has diverged from any typical practice or timeline. Finally, there is a point in this story in which he has to interpret and assess some historical and literary documents that will be hugely significant to this case.
Daly does a superb job of explaining what Gamadge knows and what that information means to allow the reader to follow the action. The focus here is on more general knowledge about literary documents rather than testing particular scraps of paper which helps keep those sections of the story from feeling dry or technical. I found the discussion of The Book of the Lion especially interesting and enjoyed doing some reading of my own about it after finishing the book (that is partly to blame for the slightly later upload on this post than usual).
As there is no direct suggestion of a crime until late in the story, the pacing of this story may seem a little unusual to readers. I was sufficiently intrigued by the context of the investigation to pursue it, much like Gamadge who at points is questioned about why he is persisting in his interest in a sale and situation that seems already settled, but I think it is fair to say that this is not treated as an intense or serious criminal investigation until very late in its page count. Even once a body turns up the pacing remains quite slow with Daly exploring some supporting characters including the relationship between a young couple that Gamadge meets.
I quite liked those interactions, feeling that those moments do a lot to convey Gamadge’s warmth as a character – something I commented favorably on in my review of Unexpected Night. This does a lot to offset some of the irritability we witness in him early in the story, making him a fundamentally likeable amateur sleuth.
The investigation of the death later in the novel is interesting and it plays fair with the reader. Because of the circumstances of the body there is an assumption that the victim committed suicide and while Gamadge may not be believed by the authorities, his reasoning for thinking that the victim was murdered are cleverly and logically reasoned. Similarly, the way he works out what actually happened is also quite satisfying.
The final chapters of the book bring everything to a close quite nicely with a conclusion I found to be quite surprising in several ways. There are some clever ideas, both in the discussion of historical events but also those in the present day, and I think Daly’s resolution to this particular case is really quite compelling.
Given the relatively brief page count of the Gamadge novels, it is probably no surprise that characters who are not directly relevant to the case get very little to do. Gamadge’s wife, for instance, is often referred to but hardly seen while David, who he enlists to help in this investigation, appears quite a lot but does not exude much personality. Readers of any previous stories in which those two have appeared may feel a little differently but if this is your first encounter with them you will not feel you particularly get to know them.
On the whole though I was much more impressed with this Gamadge adventure than either of my previous experiences with the character. Daly creates a clever plot and I think her discussion of a period of literary history is really interesting. While the pacing and the plot are perhaps not particularly thrilling, the ideas certainly are and I felt engaged throughout the whole story, in part because I enjoyed this sleuth’s company.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An Animal in the Title (What)
Les @ Classic Mysteries shares his thoughts on this book as both a written post and a podcast. He is a Daly fan and while he likes this one, suggests there are even better books featuring the character – something that can only be good news for me as I continue to explore her work!