Unexpected Night by Elizabeth Daly

Unexpected Night
Elizabeth Daly
Originally Published 1940
Henry Gamadge #1
Followed by Deadly Nightshade

Back at the start of the year I posted about my excitement at finding an affordable vintage crime novel in a local second hand book store. Since then I returned to the same book store and found that they had acquired used copies of most of the rest of Elizabeth Daly’s works. It was a pretty simple decision to go ahead and buy up their stock for a rainy day…

That previous experience of Daly was with her last book, The Book of the Crime, so it is nice to be able to jump back and start the Gamadge series at the beginning. Unexpected Night introduces us to Daly’s antiquarian bookseller sleuth as he finds himself pulled into a case as an expert in handwriting analysis.

The story concerns Amberley Cowden, a young but very sickly man who will inherit a great fortune if he lives past midnight when he reaches the age of majority. He and his family check into a hotel where he celebrates his birthday only to sneak out from his room during the night. When his body is found at the foot of a cliff it appears he has met with an unfortunate accident but the timing of the death, so soon after he inherited his fortune, leads the authorities to want to look at the matter more closely.

As set-ups for mysteries go, this makes for a pretty intriguing start to a case. Why was Cowden walking along the cliffs so late at night? If he was killed, why do it so soon after he reached his birthday and knowing that a natural death would likely occur within the next year or two? There is a lot to make sense of – fortunately Gamadge is up to the task!

When I wrote about The Book of the Crime one of my complaints was that I felt that we didn’t really get to know Daly’s sleuth. While I think he is not sketched in enormous detail here either, I did feel I had a better grip on his personality throughout the novel and understood why he was curious about particular details of the investigation.

One of the big challenges with any amateur detective is creating a credible reason that they might find themselves involved in an investigation. I appreciated that Daly does not shy away from this problem, having Gamadge say pretty bluntly that he is not really qualified to help on several occasions and quickly steering the investigation away from his area of expertise (though not in such a way that it becomes irrelevant). After a while however his curiosity is clearly aroused and he finds himself drawn to protect one of the family members who he sees as vulnerable, creating a compelling reason for him to keep investigating.

One of the nicest things about the character is that he exudes a warmth that I am not used to from several of the more famous series detectives of this period. He cares about the people involved in this case and works hard to take their feelings into account as he pursues the truth. This connection to his humanity is rather refreshing and I also appreciated that he never really feels the need to show off his skills – his ego being confined to his own area of professional expertise.

Daly also introduces an interesting dynamic between him and the Police, having him work as a sort of informal consultant. This works nicely as it allows them to share information but it also enables her to show how Gamadge possesses a brilliant and creative mind, building him up without diminishing the police (also fairly unusual in my experience of this era of detective fiction). Essentially the contrast comes down to one of flexibility – Gamadge dares to question some of the details of the case taken as facts and, in doing so, is able to envisage the case in a different way.

In her review (I have linked below), Kate suggests that Daly does not offer quite enough evidence to back up some aspects of the conclusion. I think that it is true that Gamadge should not be able to prove his case with the evidence the reader has been given at the moment of the reveal and, thus, the book perhaps doesn’t quite play fair. That being said, I do see how Gamadge’s solution (even lacking evidence to prove it in a court of law) could be seen to offer a tidiness that no alternative reading of the facts would allow. The way Daly opts to have the case proved though is quite lazy, relying on a third party to confirm a significant chunk of the solution he could otherwise only guess at and I do think it is those final two chapters feel a little rushed and unsatisfying as a result.

There are many other aspects of the book that I responded very well to however, not least the interesting cast of suspects Daly develops. Cowden’s family make up an interesting blend of types, clearly all financially dependent on their relative to some extent. Daly does a good job of allowing their personalities and feelings towards Amberley to emerge over the course of the novel as I found that I remained uncertain of several characters’ motivations and sincerity until close to the end of the novel. This added to the intrigue of the situation and made aspects of the conclusion all the more compelling to me.

I also appreciated the wonderful descriptions of the small theatre that Atwood has created on an old pier with the actors using tents on the sand for changing rooms and all the small cast having to double or triple up on parts. I found this an easy location to imagine and felt that Daly did a good job of bringing her cast of theatrical characters to life.

All in all, I found this second experience with Gamadge to be a much more satisfying encounter than my first. The mystery, while not perfectly clued, is engaging and presents a solid puzzle for the reader to solve and I found the sleuth entertaining company for a couple of hours. As I noted at the start of this article, I own most of Daly’s works so I am confident that I will be returning to experience more of his adventures soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime found the book uneven, though she had praise for the sleuth himself and Daly’s writing style. I cannot disagree with her opinion that the evidence for the conclusion rests a lot on a statement from a third party.

Les @ Classic Mysteries suggests that while this is an entertaining read, it is far from Daly’s strongest work. He suggests that as they do not need to be read in order that some may want to start with a later title and then return to this.

The Book of the Crime by Elizabeth Daly

bookofthecrime
The Book of the Crime
Elizabeth Daly
Originally Published 1951
Henry Gamadge #16
Preceded by Death and Letters

I have expressed the enormous sense of envy I feel towards several of my blogging chums who are able to pop down to a market stall or a charity book shop and happen upon actual vintage mysteries. The few secondhand bookstores near me rarely have anything dating back before 1980 (Agatha Christie titles, wonderful though they are, do not count). I can, of course, order things online but that limits the opportunities for discovery which is one of the great pleasures of book shopping for me.

It was a nice surprise for me when I stumbled upon a copy of Elizabeth Daly’s The Book of the Crime the other day at a local used bookstore (the edition pictured is a much more recent reprint from Felony & Mayhem than the one I purchased). While starting with the last book in a series is hardly ideal, I couldn’t resist the acquisition and then felt the need to justify spending the money by actually reading it.

The Book of the Crime introduces us to Rena Austen, a young woman who married a wounded war hero only to find that their relationship quickly turned sour. One day he discovers her looking at a book in their library and becomes very intense with her, frightening her enough that she decides to tell him that she wants to leave him. He storms out, locking her in the room, forcing her to escape and run to the only person she can think who might help – Henry Gamadge who had been a client of a publisher she used to work for.

This story has a somewhat unusual structure in that while there are clearly odd things taking place in that house in the Upper East Side, we are over halfway through the novel before Gamadge has an obvious crime to investigate. Up until that point our focus is on learning about the characters, trying to understand what about Rena holding that particular book prompted such an explosive reaction from her husband and observing how Henry supports her and steers her in trying to secure a more permanent separation from her husband.

That last point is particularly important as securing Rena’s long-term security is Henry’s main priority in investigating this situation and he does so already being convinced that her husband must be guilty of something. This is a completely understandable assumption based on his behavior and it quickly establishes Henry’s role in this story as a champion of the woman involved in the case rather than as a more dispassionate, process-driven detective.

These early chapters of the novel also provide information about recent developments in Henry Gamadge’s life which sadly were a little lost on me. This is, of course, not Daly’s fault. She was not responsible for me jumping on board at the end of this series and I think they seem well written. If nothing else, it is certainly a pleasant novelty to encounter a sleuth with a genuinely happy home life. I will be curious to see whether other titles in this series also feature these glimpses of his domestic life or if it was unique to this novel.

I found Henry Gamadge to be quite an appealing protagonist and can understand the comparisons people draw with Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, though I think he seems a little less affected. His response to Rena’s problems is quite admirable, particularly given he hardly knows her, and I think that makes him feel all the more likable. I also enjoyed that this mystery absolutely caters to his particular skill set, making his background a really important part of the story.

Turning back to the mystery element of the novel, I think the start of this book presents us with an intriguing situation though not much in the way of firm, physical clues. Instead this is the sort of case where the reader must infer things about the case based on the situation and what we can observe of characters’ relationships with each other.

That approach often works well and I did find some of the deductions to be quite clever but I do think the overall structure of the plot naturally suggests the answers to several key plot points. I do think though that if you haven’t already guessed at the solution, the explanations given for how the different elements of the story related to each other seem quite logical and clever. I was ultimately satisfied with the reasons given about what took place and why.

One part of the book that did disappoint however is the introduction of a murder late in the narrative. There are some positives that come with this plot development in that it gives a little focus to the investigation element of the story and I think it plays an important role in several of the novel’s subplots but the victim is unknown to us at first meeting, meaning that their death has little emotional impact. We do gain a little information about this character in subsequent chapters never so much that I felt that they really came to life.

Happily I found the initial mystery concerning Austen’s erratic behavior sufficiently interesting that I could overlook the relatively uninteresting murder. I enjoyed the process of discovering more about him and his family while I felt it built to a solid, if not exactly thrilling conclusion that lacks surprises.

On the whole I enjoyed it more than enough to go and seek out more of Daly’s work which I expect to do in the near future.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Librarian/Bookstore Owner/Publisher (Who) – Gamadge isn’t exactly any of these but I think being a rare books expert is clearly along the same lines