The Metropolitan Opera Murders by Helen Traubel

Originally published in 1951

When the prompter falls dead during the second act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre during a matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera, as one can imagine, it causes quite a stir, especially when it is discovered that the deceased, a one time world famous Heldentenor has been poisoned. The detective assigned to the case, Lt. Quentin, finds himself immersed in the back stage drama of professional opera. His task is made more difficult when he decides that it had really been the star soprano who had been the intended victim, and not the prompter. Will he be able to solve the case before there is another Metropolitan Opera Murder?

The Library of Congress Crime Classics range is a curious one. I strongly approve of the notion, advocated in the introductions to the titles, that crime fiction – being the most popular of the genres of fiction – can be a valuable window into our shared past. The idea that through exploring the background to these stories and the many cultural references contained within we can learn more about our past. Crime and mystery fiction has deserved that sort of a spotlight and it is lovely to see a range set about exploring those ideas through the sort of detailed annotations and historical contexts you see given to these titles.

Looked at through that lens, The Metropolitan Opera Murders is a really solid selection. It not only presents an insider’s view of life in and around the opera house, it is also one of the earlier examples of a mystery supposedly written by a celebrity. In this case Traubel, a renowned opera singer of her time, was apparently assisted by Harold Q. Masur who would go on to become a founder member and future President of the Mystery Writers of America.

The problem with that, as noted in both the book’s introduction and in the Reading Guide, is that as a mystery novel it is hardly deserving of the ‘classics’ label. I do not feel inclined to disagree with the critics of the time who found it ‘definitely second rate’, though I think it does offer a few points of interest that given its brevity may make it worth a glance.

The story concerns a prompter who dies when he consumes a poisoned drink during a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The police inspector, Lt. Quentin, soon learns that this is not the first strange event that has taken place in the Metropolitan Opera House, many of which seem to be centered on one of its leading stars. Was the prompter intended to die or was this another attempt on her life that just didn’t go to plan?

There is no doubt that the setting itself is drawn very well, giving a good sense not only of the opera house as a space but of the personalities of the different people connected with it. There are concerns about its funding with an individual donor being leaned heavily upon because of his personal connections with it, and much discussion about how singers’ careers might be started or grown. Those who come to the book hoping for those sorts of informed details will likely be content though I suspect that there will be little new information for those sufficiently immersed in that world.

Those who are new to the world of opera need not worry however as while the book is set in that world, no knowledge of it will be required to solve this case. After introducing us to the company and some of the people associated with it, we find ourselves on the familiar grounds of exploring professional rivalries, backstage passions and possible jewel thefts.

The question of how the prompter was poisoned during the performance is a simple one and resolved pretty much instantly and so the early chapters of the book focus on the question of motive. Was the prompter really the intended victim? If so, do we have two criminals at work or is there some connection between the various crimes.

The solution to the story offered few surprises thought it was not without some points of interest. One critical element struck me as being pretty novel but as it is only revealed in the final few pages I can’t provide any details about it. I suspect the reason that the book disappointed contemporary critics as a mystery is that there isn’t much misdirection and many of the characters read a little two dimensionally. Instead of trying to baffle the reader through complexity, the author opts instead to try to tell the story at speed, giving little room to breathe between each reveal.

I had already hinted earlier that the book is rather short (the 184 pages contain a lot of half pages and some lengthy annotations) and this choice makes that all the more apparent. We rattle through the situation so quickly that it reads more like a thriller than a detective story, perhaps not helped by some plot points that feel like they belong to that genre too. It lends the book a page-turning quality but those looking for a well-clued mystery with a focus on the deductive process will likely be a little disappointed.

The Verdict: The Metropolitan Opera Murders is a title perhaps best approached with lowered expectations. It can be a fun and entertaining quick read but it is ultimately quite a shallow one. Those with a curiosity about the operatic setting or an appreciation for theatrical mysteries will get the most out of this.

Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh

Originally published in 1952.

It’s a perfectly typical day for Lowell Mitchell at her perfectly ordinary university in Massachusetts. She goes to class, chats with friends, and retires to her dorm room. Everything is normal until suddenly it’s not—in the blink of an eye, Lowell is gone.

Facts are everything for Police Chief Frank Ford. He’s a small-town cop, and he knows only hard evidence and thorough procedure will lead him to the truth. Together with the wise-cracking officer Burt Cameron, the grizzled chief will deal with the distraught family, chase dead-end leads, interrogate shady witnesses, and spend late nights ruminating over black coffee and cigars. Everyone tells him what a good, responsible girl Lowell is. But Ford believes that Lowell had a secret and that if he can discover it, this case will crack wide open.

Considered one of the first-ever police procedurals and hailed as an American mystery milestone, Last Seen Wearing—based on a true story—builds suspense through its accurate portrayal of an official police investigation. Hillary Waugh, who earned the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America, went on to create several memorable series, but this classic crime novel ranks among his finest work.

Last Seen Wearing is a very early example of the police procedural style of crime fiction. That is a type of mystery in which the solution is less important than the means by which we reach it, with a focus on accurately replicating the types of processes and techniques used by the police services.

While I am not convinced by claims that it is the first (the introduction to the book for instance references Lawrence Treat’s V as in Victim which was published a year earlier and Dragnet while I would point to Georges Simenon and Henry Wade as two other earlier examples), it seems clear that this work was quite influential in the development of the subgenre. For example, in 1990 the Crime Writers Association picked it as one of the hundred best crime novels as did the Mystery Writers of America a few years later.

In just a couple of pages at the start of the novel Waugh outlines the background to the case. We learn that Lowell Mitchell, an eighteen year old freshman at Parker College, opted out of going to lunch with her roommate Peggy, telling her that she is feeling sick. When Peggy returned to their room a short while later, she found Lowell’s bed empty and with no sign of her friend on campus, her concerns for her friend grow until, just after the midnight curfew, Peggy decides to tell the housemother that Lowell is missing.

Miss Grenfell makes enquiries and the building and grounds are searched but with no clues as to her whereabouts, she finally makes a call to the authorities to report the disappearance. A body soon turns up and while the circumstances are suggestive of suicide, a small detail at the crime scene makes it clear that it is a case of murder…

Rather than dividing his novel into chapters, Waugh presents the story as one, long continuous narrative. There are time and date headings but while we may occasionally skip forward a little in time, we remain firmly focused on the efforts of a pair of characters. No major discoveries take place during those brief time jumps, nor are any details withheld from the reader. There is, in other words, a real sense that the reader is getting a detailed picture of an entire investigation.

One consequence of that approach is that the plot can feel a little simplistic. Readers should not come to this expecting to find twists or an investigation that seems to evolve. Here the terms of that investigation are pretty consistent from the start to its conclusion and there is little that is likely to surprise, though that may reflect that social values have shifted considerably since publication and I could imagine that contemporary readers may have been more surprised by some plot points relating to what the book terms ‘morality’.

The other consequence of the approach Waugh takes is that while there are elements of detection as the reader is not really given any opportunity to solve this crime. In fact we actually spend very little time at all with any of the suspects – at least directly – and so we don’t really get to know them as people. In other circumstances I might well have had less patience for that but I think it works here to focus our attention on questions of why and how Lowell was killed rather than who is psychologically likely to do so. The answers to those questions did not surprise me but I was interested in how the police came to their conclusions.

Waugh’s characterizations of the two lead police detectives can similarly be seen as a little simple, though I think he manages to establish them as two quite distinct types, often finding interesting contrast between them. Some of that is educational, with one character noting that he learned his profession through experience rather than through books – a familiar conflict now (see episodes of Endeavour and Daziel and Pascoe for starters) but one that would have felt much fresher at the time and which is handled quite well.

One aspect of the way these characters were written that struck me was that Chief Ford, clearly emotionally invested in solving the case, engages in some very abrasive and aggressive questioning of a young, female suspect at one point that verges on cruelty. I suspect that is intended to reflect Ford’s passion to solve the case, but it is one of those elements of the novel that feels a little stuck in its time. Similarly, I rolled my eyes several times at the way that our police protagonists discuss that question of ‘morality’.

While many of the characters we encounter in the investigation are only met briefly, a few make big impressions for reasons other than the way they were characterized. One of my favorites was Mildred Naffzinger, a character who can boast one of the most distinctive names I have come across in detective fiction.

The solution to the case is, as I suggested earlier, not particularly surprising and some may find the reveal to be a little anticlimactic. Still, in spite of feeling very confident from early in the book where it was headed, I enjoyed watching it take shape as the case was slowly pieced together over the course of the story.

The Verdict: Offers few surprises but I enjoyed the experience of seeing the case get pieced together.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C. W. Grafton

Originally published in 1943

Short, chubby, and awkward with members of the opposite sex, Gil Henry is the youngest partner in a small law firm, not a hard-boiled sleuth. So when an attractive young woman named Ruth McClure walks into his office and asks him to investigate the value of the stock she inherited from her father, he thinks nothing of it—until someone makes an attempt on his life.

Soon Gil is inadvertently embroiled in a classic American scandal, subterfuge, and murder. He’s beaten, shot, and stabbed, as his colleagues and enemies try to stop him from seeing the case through to the end. Surrounded by adversaries, he teams up with Ruth and her secretive brother to find answers to the questions someone desperately wants to keep him from asking.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope may, if you follow a variety of vintage mystery blogs, have cropped up on your feed several times over the past few weeks. That was because, as several of those posts noted, it was a selection for a book club and at this point I can probably reveal that I was responsible for making that selection. The reason I put it forward was not that I had any real knowledge of the author (I had never read anything by either C. W. or Sue Grafton prior to this) but because I wanted to finally get around to trying one of those Library of Congress Crime Classics I have had sitting on my shelf.

The novel concerns Gil Henry, a junior partner in a law firm, who stumbles into a mysterious situation when he is approached by a beautiful young woman named Ruth who is seeking his advice. She tells him how when her father recently died he left her some shares in the company he had worked for. Shortly afterwards she received a visit from her father’s employer who offered to buy them from her and take care of his legal papers. The curious thing is that the offer was for considerably more than those shares were valued leading her to wonder if she might be better holding onto them.

Gil begins the story fairly disinterested in the case but things quickly escalate when he learns that someone had broken into Ruth’s home while she was meeting with him and then, just a short time later, an attempt seems to be made on his life. He soon comes to the opinion that there is a mystery there to unravel though and he tries to find some answers, running into the law, resistance from his own client and several sets of fists.

If you have read some of the reviews posted you may have noticed that the book provoked some quite strong opinions from us. There were some among us who had a great time with the book, some much less so. I think a large part of the reason for that split lies in the character of Gil and the style of narration that Grafton employs here.

While I have seen some, including the introduction to the book, describe this as a work of noir fiction, I think it would be more accurate to say that it is a novel told in a punchy, hard-boiled style. The distinction here is that I feel it is a choice of style and presentation rather than offering a cynical outlook on the world. While Gil is frequently played by others and left to look a little foolish, I don’t think that the book offers anything approaching that cynical view of humanity or even the institutions we create.

This is married with some deeply sarcastic commentary on the action offered in Gil’s narration. This, along with his behavior, becomes increasingly pronounced throughout the novel until by the end of the book he is throwing himself into the action, playing hardball with the authorities and flirting outrageously with some of the female characters. I found this initially a little jarring until I realized that this is a junior, rather corporate lawyer seeing a chance to play Perry Mason, evoking that character’s earlier and rather looser approach to observing the legal niceties. Once I saw it from that perspective I found myself embracing it and relishing some of Gil’s more caustic observations, even if I found his actual voice and interactions with others a little more wearying.

Admittedly the action can get a little silly at points. Others have pointed to the string of concussions that Gil receives and just shakes off in the course of this story as being quite ridiculous. I have to concede they have a point. Still, I embraced that to an extent as a reflection of its somewhat pulpy origins and I appreciated that, while at times ridiculous, it is a pretty effective method for stopping a scene rather than letting it run on and on.

I should also probably acknowledge that the mysterious elements of the story fall short of the fair play standard. At the same time though that didn’t really bother me because I felt Grafton established much of the background to the story extremely well near the beginning. This is particularly impressive as this case involves a few rather technical ideas that are of exactly the sort that usually stump me yet are conveyed quite simply in just a handful of pages. I really respected just how well the author managed to condense that information and use it in a way that seemed both clear and logical in the context of this scenario and these characters.

The explanation for what has happened, when given, feels similarly very clear and easy-to-follow. I felt it was particularly effective when presenting reasons for why things may turn out the way that they did and I think that the book makes great use of the nursery rhyme reference in its title. It really feels quite fitting…

The only aspect of the ending that didn’t quite work for me was an awkward attempt to shoehorn a romantic development in where none really fit. While that does offer a few moments of amusement, I am not sure that I knew those characters well enough at that point to truly invest in that aspect of their lives.

In spite of those small criticisms, I do have to note that I found this to be really rather enjoyable. There are some creative and fun concepts at play making this a quick, page-turning sort of read that delivers on the action. While I might not offer it up to those who are looking for puzzle plots, this is quite readable and thoroughly absorbing overall. I might even go off in search of a copy of the next in the series!

The Verdict: An entertaining blend of pulpy, hard-boiled fiction and the comical.

Further Reading

Other Book Clubber takes can be found at In Search of the Classic Mystery, CrossExaminingCrime and AhSweetMystery.