Originally published in 1937
Adelaide Adams #1
Followed by There Is No Return
There’s sinister goings on at the Richelieu. Can Miss Adams, commonly known as “The Old Battle-Axe”, solve the mystery before it turns deadly?
In a small Southern town in a quaint old hotel Adelaide Adams is knitting, unprepared for the reign of terror and bloodshed that is about to begin. If she had been prepared she would – in spite of her bulk and an arthritic knee – have taken to her heels then and there.
Surprisingly dark but satisfying tale in the Had I But Known style.
Murder à la Richelieu is an example of the ‘Had I But Known’ style of storytelling. These sorts of stories, which are usually first person narratives, build anticipation by emphasizing the terror or fear that they will encounter later. In some cases, such as here, they may explicitly tell you what horror awaits you – in this case the discovery of the body of a man hanging from a chandelier with his throat cut – while linking them to the much more mundane events you are about to experience. The question for the reader is how will you get from point A, the calm of the opening, to point B, the moment of terror, and what will be responsible.
Our protagonist in this story is Adelaide Adams, an aging spinster who for the past few years has lived at the Richelieu, a residential hotel that has been nicknamed ‘the old ladies’ home’ by some of the more facetious folk in town. Most of the clientele have lived at the hotel for years, many occupying the same suites and rooms, and the staffing has been similarly stable.
The character of Adelaide is the best thing about this novel. She is a really striking protagonist, in part because she feels so unusual for this sort of story. Adelaide, who regards herself as a ‘close student of human comedy’, is thought of as a ‘battle-axe’ and ‘nosy old maid’ by some. She is not, we are assured, the type of person who would be easily frightened and yet she confesses she would have ‘taken shrieking to my heels’ had she known what horrors she would encounter.
By establishing that Adelaide is confident and assertive, Blackmon is clearly indicating that this terror will not be the result of weakness of character but her experience of some genuinely horrific acts and I will say that this is borne out by the story that follows. While the violence is largely conveyed through impressions, the throat-cutting murder is perhaps the least horrific one in the story – no matter what some reviewers may say, this is decidedly not a cozy mystery.
The mundane event that we have to connect to the murders is the discovery of Adelaide’s spectacles case between the cushions on the divan in the lobby. This confuses Adelaide, who has excellent memory, because she never removes it from her bedroom and has a memory of putting it in the drawer in her bedside table. Further disappearances follow, giving us an opportunity to get to know many of the other residents in the hotel, building to the horrific discovery of that body in her bedroom.
The passage leading up to that moment is highly effective, building a sense of dread as Adelaide gropes around in the dark to try. Adelaide’s description of what happens incorporates several of the senses, slowly building a sense of horror as we wait for a more detailed reveal of what we have already been primed to expect and a sense of mystery about exactly who it is hanging from that chandelier. It makes for an excellent opening to the book and I was delighted to find that other criminous developments soon follow, making the book feel really packed full of incident.
While the events in the book can get pretty dark, Blackmon does provide some lighter, comedic moments that give the novel some balance. There are also some more tender, character-focused moments that explore Adelaide’s own background and make her a richer, more nuanced figure than she initially portrays herself as being although the tone of those more emotional scenes can feel a little mawkish at times.
There is a formal police investigation, headed by Inspector Bunyan. These characters are rather hardboiled, feeling a little at odds with the Southern town setting, but they play an important role of establishing some of the formal facts of the case and focusing the reader’s attention on some of the outstanding questions about the relationships between characters and matters of identity. While they, at points, take actions that push the story forwards, the action mostly centers on Adelaide and the things she will experience and discover.
When we get to the explanation of what has happened, the various strands of the story – the disappearing items, the questions concerning characters’ identities and the murders – are brought together pretty convincingly. Though the sheer number of murders committed in just 170 pages may raise some eyebrows, I feel that the killer chosen was fairly credible, and their motive for committing this series of frantic and gruesome murders made sense.
Overall I found this book to be is a quick and exciting read, packed with incident and featuring a great protagonist. Blackmon’s writing style is highly engaging, in part because of the very effective use of the Had I But Known style but also because there is a real sense of escalation in the crimes as they build to one of the more memorable (and gruesome) murders I can think of in a Golden Age work.
Curtis Evans wrote a piece about the author for MysteryFile. While she only wrote one other mystery novel, she was a highly prolific short story writer so I will have to keep an eye out for those in the future!
TomCat wrote an excellent review of this work at Beneath the Stains of Time. I completely agree with the comments about an unusual aspect of the plot that causes the work to stand out. I was struck by how direct the book is about discussing some activities that are usually only alluded to indirectly or euphemistically in works from this period.