Reprint of the Year: The So Blue Marble

So BlueThose of you who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that I am a fan of the British Library Crime Classics range. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I wouldn’t be here blogging about mystery fiction if I hadn’t come across copies of Family MattersThe Cheltenham Square Murder or Death in the Tunnel. Certainly I wouldn’t have developed an interest in vintage crime fiction.

What that range does so brilliantly is to find authors who have fallen out of the public eye and present it in an attractive and accessible package. Part of that is the sense that the books have been carefully selected, giving the more casual reader confidence that what they will read is in some way important or interesting and that sense is reinforced by the introductory essay that accompanies each release.

Now, you may be wondering why I am talking about a publisher that wasn’t responsible for today’s nomination for Reprint of the Year – Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble. The reason is that while the British Library was successfully doing this for British authors and books, I was surprised that there wasn’t a publisher doing something comparable for vintage American crime fiction, making it accessible to a more casual audience. In stepped Otto Penzler.

Now Otto Penzler is one of those names that will be familiar to most people with an interest in mystery fiction. He is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the founder of The Mysterious Press publishing company. He has edited numerous anthologies of crime and mystery fiction, served on the board of the Mystery Writers of America and written several reference works. He was also a voter in the 1981 Ed Hoch Locked Room Library list! In short, he is a man who knows mystery fiction and is the perfect person to curate a range highlighting the American mystery novel in its various forms.

This range debuted in the Fall of 2018 with the release of six novels. This first batch included titles by Craig Rice, Clayton Rawson, Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer and Mary Roberts Rinehart. While none of the first six authors picked are quite as obscure as Leonard Gribble or Ellen Wilkinson future releases are set to feature less widely-known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge.

Each features an introduction by Penzler discussing the author and where that work fits into their career and they are issued in both softcover and hardcover editions, wrapped in gorgeous, vibrant artwork that gives the range consistency and serious shelf appeal (if you can afford it I would recommend the hardcovers which are sturdily bound). In short, this is the sort of range I can see myself collecting for its own sake, even if it means owning multiple copies of some of books (as I will when The Dutch Shoe Mystery comes out next year).

Now as with last week’s nomination (Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread), I do not propose reviewing the book all over again. For that I’d suggest you check out my review. Only a month has passed since I wrote it and I am pretty confident in saying that my views remain as they were.

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is a story that draws deeply from its urban setting. It begins with a woman accosted on the street by two men who force their way into the apartment that she is borrowing from her ex-husband. Right at the start of the novel you get the sense that this character is isolated even though she is surrounded by people. Characters are able to appear and disappear with no one really noticing.

The central character is a divorced woman who has been able to reinvent herself successfully not once but twice becoming first an actress then a fashion designer. She is placed in a trying and testing situation with no support (in fact the family she has frequently prove to be liabilities) and yet she navigates it completely believably. She is sometimes distressed in the course of the story and yet she always retains her strength and identity, never being written as a damsel in distress. She is a great lead character.

Hughes also gives us a truly memorable pair of villains in the form of Danny and David Montefierrow. These murderous twins combine striking physical descriptions with moments of cold, dispassionate brutality that are quite unlike anything else I have read from the period. I felt a chill every time they appeared. One of the two is clearly a sadist and both have an ability to kill without any remorse but what sticks with me most is the unsettling, violent triangle that forms between the pair and a female character within the narrative.

One of the most interesting things Hughes does is she builds mystery out of incident rather than by defining a question for the reader to answer. From the start of the novel things happen to Griselda and she reacts as best she can with the knowledge that she has yet she does not have enough information to entire understand what is being asked of her. For instance, for much of the novel we do not have much of a sense of what exactly the Montefierrow brothers are seeking or why and that is fine because to Griselda it doesn’t really matter why they are looking for it, only that they believe she has it and that means she is in danger.

By the end of the novel all of the important questions have been answered but the journey to get to those answers is wild and unpredictable. As I say in my review, it’s not just that there are some surprising revelations and developments in the plot but it is the way characters are used and interact with each other. Unpredictable combinations lead the story down some unexpected paths and yet those moments never feel contrived or anything less than satisfying.

All of these aspects of the book combine for a truly striking reading experience. If you have never read the book I strongly recommend it, particularly if you appreciate stories in the thriller and adventure mold, and if you do then you will certainly want to pick up this edition!

The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

So Blue
The So Blue Marble
Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally Published 1940
Griselda Satterlee #1
Followed by The Bamboo Blonde

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is one of six vintage titles that were chosen by Otto Penzler to launch his new American Mystery Classics range. Like the British Library’s range, these books each feature an introduction giving some context to the work and information about the author.

Coming months will see titles from familiar names such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen as well as less widely known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge. I think the range looks to showcase the enormous variety to be found in American Golden Age crime fiction.

While I knew that Dorothy B. Hughes is a relatively well-known name in American mystery fiction, this was my first encounter with her work. The So Blue Marble was her first mystery novel although, as the introduction notes, it might be better described as a thriller or work of sensation fiction.

The story concerns Griselda Satterlee, a former actress who has given up show business to become a fashion designer, who is taking a couple of months vacation in New York. Not being fond of hotels, she is staying in her ex-husband’s apartment while he is away on assignment as a news reporter. When she walks home one night she is stopped by two handsome, well-dressed twins who force their way into the apartment. They tell her that they have come in search of the So Blue Marble which they insist she or her ex-husband must possess.

What is the So Blue Marble? Well, in truth it is little more than a MacGuffin albeit with a mystical back story and a rather odd name. The desire to possess it provides motivation for some of the characters but the nature of the object is of little consequence. What is really important is what it means to the Montefierrow twins and what they are willing to do to acquire it.

Danny and David Montefierrow make for a fascinating pair of characters. Initially we see them in terms of their charm and physical perfection but Griselda quickly notices the blankness in their eyes which she finds quite unsettling. We see that they can be quite ruthless and prepared to harm innocent third parties while I think the triangle that forms between them and a woman reads as sadistic and disturbing while it is also hard to understand just who is dominant within the relationship.

We are introduced to a number of other characters who play roles within Griselda’s life that she will seek to protect. She has two sisters, Ann and Missy, each quite fascinating and possessing very distinct personalities. I enjoyed getting to know each of them and was pleased that they played meaningful roles within the plot.

Her ex-husband’s neighbor, an archaeology and art professor at the university, is an intriguing presence and possible romantic interest. He, of course, is concerned that he not do anything that might jeopardize his friendship with Con. One early scene in which she convinces him to stay in the apartment overnight after the incident referred to earlier is really quite charming.

Con, on the other hand, was a character that never quite worked for me. Part of it, I think, is that I was hungry for more details about their relationship, why they were initially attracted to one another and why it failed. He spends a significant portion of the novel as little more than a reference or an idea and as a result I never really felt I knew him and what makes him tick.

As for Griselda, I found her to be easy to empathize with and I appreciated that while she occasionally accepts help from male characters that she is not portrayed as a damsel in distress. I appreciated the way this story affects her relationship with Con and her desire to keep him from harm. While I think a story beat at the end is not quite earned, I did enjoy spending time in her company.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was that it feels like an absolutely unpredictable, crazy ride. It is not just the surprising plot developments, although there are a few moments I never saw coming, but rather it is the character beats that make this feel quite different and unusual. It is a joy discovering these characters and seeing how they will all interact with each other to drive the story.

The So Blue Marble is a wonderfully entertaining, even amusing story which feels far too polished and rich to be anyone’s first novel. I had a good time discovering the secrets behind the marble and its history as well as seeing how the conflict between the twins and Griselda would play in it. For those who enjoy thriller-type stories, this would be Highly Recommended.