Ill Met By Moonlight by Leslie Ford

IllMetByMoonlightLast 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 WitnessIll 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.

The Strangled Witness by Leslie Ford

StrangledLeslie Ford was a pseudonym used by Zenith Brown, a prolific American author who worked from the early 1930s until the early 1960s. In addition to her Ford persona, she also wrote under the names Brenda Conrad and David Frome. Though apparently quite popular in her day, Ford has faded into relative obscurity. For those interested in something of an overview of Ford’s career there is an excellent article available on Girl Detective, Diana Killian’s website.

Ford’s series sleuth was a character called Colonel Primrose who had retired from the service and assists the police in their investigations on a consultancy basis. He is aided by an army chum, Sergeant Buck, who is an imposing presence having been an army heavyweight champion when in the service but remains highly deferential to and protective of Primrose.

The Strangled Witness seems to be the character’s first appearance although there is a reference to an earlier adventure that may either just exist as backstory or that may have appeared in a magazine or journal. GA Detection suggests that The Clock Strives Twelve appeared first. There are few reviews online and the book, like all of Ford’s, is long out of print. Whether it is his first appearance or not, Ford does a strong job of introducing her leads and establishing their relationship.

So, what is The Strangled Witness about?

The book is set during the early days of the New Deal, a period in which the American federal government massively expanded its role in the economy and spent heavily on infrastructure projects. This novel concerns one such project and the congressional fight about whether a private utilities company will be able to own and operate a site or if it will become a state concern. When the book begins a key vote is about to take place and an influential Senator is about to make a speech laying out his position on what should happen.

The politics of that decision is a little hard to boil down for an introduction but the key points are as follows. The Senator is being lobbied hard by each camp and seems to be wavering about what to do although he has previously indicated that he is in favor of private enterprise. He is secretly dating the daughter of the former Senator he defeated for his seat who is a firm vote in favor of a public-owned option and the two men are engaged in a legal dispute about whether there was vote tampering in their election. The daughter’s ex-boyfriend is a crusading journalist who devotes his weekly column to attacking the Senator.

On the night of his big radio address where he will announce his decision on the vote, the Senator is discovered shot dead in his own home. What makes this particularly strange is that he was heard delivering his radio address after he had died. Because of the sensitive nature of the case, Primrose is called in to assist in the investigation and sets about trying to understand the timeline of the events that evening.

The opening to the novel reads a little dryly and evokes less suspense and interest than I think the author intended but things brighten up considerably once the investigation begins. Ford clearly felt very comfortable with this political world and I think her treatment of lobbying is unexpectedly strong as she avoids the trap of taking sides or simply portraying the process as negative and instead treats the lobbyists and political aides as people.

The circumstances of the murder are not especially complex other than the issue of timing and here I must say that the reader will struggle to stay far ahead of the sleuth. Primrose is one of the smarter detectives out there and it never takes him long to spot the significance of a detail or clue. For instance, there is a watch at the scene of the crime that seems to indicate a time of death, yet three pages later we read Primrose dismiss this as an obvious plant. If only all detective novels understood that some tricks are simply too well known.

Primrose’s approach is quite straightforward and sensible, though it is frequently intuitive rather than deductive. In particular, he likes to ask questions to see the reaction rather than to hear the answer and seems to read a lot into those physical responses. His thinking is shared with us however and while I would not stretch to calling this a puzzle mystery, there are some nice, simple deductions made along the way.

The supporting characters vary in interest and development. Both female characters, the widowed lobbyist and the former Senator’s daughter, are shown to be firm and controlling in their dealings with others which is a little refreshing. At the other end of the spectrum, I can understand some commentators’ views that the characters from non-white backgrounds come off as stereotyped and overly simplistic.

Perhaps the biggest question I had as I read related to the book’s title. I kept waiting in expectation that the body would show up yet for the first two thirds of the novel we are just investigating the one murder. When the strangled victim finally does show up we are so close to the end that the discovery of that body and the interviews that follow feel rushed. In a way I wish that Ford had picked some other title for her book as that moment may have had more of an impact had it come as a surprise for the reader.

The ending itself feels particularly rushed and the book suffers a little from a character simply giving up the moment they are accused apparently because of their feeling of guilt. It almost feels a little too easy after all that has come before it. Still, the path to getting there was engaging and I did think the solution to the murder was quite satisfying.