Deadly Nightshade by Elizabeth Daly
Originally published in 1940
Henry Gamadge #2
Preceded by Unexpected Night
Followed by Murders in Volume 2
With talk of war all over the radio waves, antiquarian book dealer Henry Gamadge is back in Maine, this time by invitation of his friend Detective Mitchell. Mitchell has a real puzzler on his hands: three different children have been poisoned with deadly nightshade, and there is no motive that could possibly link all three poisonings, beside the fact that the children all live in the same small community. Could the nearby encampment of Gypsies be involved? And was the death of a state trooper at about the same time a mere coincidence? Gamadge sets out to separate fact from fiction and find the killer before they strike again…
A few years back I stacked up on Elizabeth Daly novels when I happened upon a set of them in a secondhand bookshop. I have been slowly working my way through them ever since and while I have yet to be completely blown away by one (the closest to date was a later volume, The Book of the Lion), I have enjoyed those I have read well enough to keep returning to them.
Daly’s series sleuth is Henry Gamadge, an antiquarian book dealer. One of the challenges writers with amateur detectives face is working out how they come to investigate their second crime. Daly handles this by having Inspector Mitchell, the police detective from her first novel, reach out to Gamadge to ask if he can once again throw light on a puzzling and potentially volatile situation.
Several children, each from separate households but living in the same community, all became sick on the same day having eaten the berries from the deadly nightshade plant. One has died while another has vanished and tensions are running high with suspicion falling on a nearby community of gypsies. Mitchell does not believe that they are responsible but has struggled to come up with any explanation. Sensing that the community’s patience is running out and without the help of a state trooper who died in an accident around that time, he asks Gamadge to travel to Maine and help him with his investigation.
The obvious place to start in discussing this book is by addressing its really dark subject matter. Crimes against children are not uncommon in modern mystery fiction but are certainly rare in works from this period. While I can recall a few stories that involve kidnappings and one with an accidental death (Blake’s The Beast Must Die), I cannot think of any that feature the murder of a very young child.
The expectation that I have when I encounter this sort of subject matter is that it will be matched by a dark and broody tone. I have shared that I often avoid stories of this type because as the parent of a young child myself the subject matter can be quite uncomfortable for me. I doubt I would have picked this off the shelf if I had looked at the blurb. As I read however I was struck by how the book never really taps into any of that emotional material instead presenting it as simply a curious puzzle for Gamadge to solve. While we are told at the start of the book that emotions have been running high, I rarely felt that communicated through the characters’ speech or actions.
The exception would be the animus directed toward the gypsies camped nearby. This is also often told rather than shown but we do hear enough to get a sense of the resentments, fears and suspicions that have developed toward that community. Daly tries to be thoughtful in how she addresses these, using Gamadge and Mitchell’s belief in their innocence and the sense that they are being persecuted to provide some balance to that discussion.
Turning to the investigation itself, I think Daly does a good job in the initial chapters of drawing out and exploring the nature of the puzzle she is setting us. The main question is one of motive – to explain why these children from different households were all targeted. I do think this is an interesting question and I appreciated the way Gamadge logically works through the possibilities at the outset to arrive at the few most likely options.
I also appreciated that Daly does a good job of showing how Gamadge is able to interact in a different way with some of the witnesses, particularly the children and the gypsies, to persuade them to share information with him. I could understand why he was able to make some progress where Mitchell had failed and so here I felt the tandem approach of pairing an amateur with a professional detective worked well).
The problem I had with the investigation though is that it frequently feels rather unstructured. I think part of the reason for this is that Gamadge is not joining out the outset but instead at a point where most of the evidence has already been collected. That allows for a neater presentation of the puzzle but it also means that there is little sense of discovery, particularly beyond the first few chapters. Instead many of the interviews seem more focused on expanding upon details already learned.
That is not to suggest that the investigation is without interest. To give an example, the question of the identity of a person seen driving in the area on the day of the poisonings is an intriguing one. Unfortunately I feel that Daly takes a little too long to get to these points and bring them into focus which leaves the midsection of the novel feeling rather slow.
Which brings me to the conclusion.
Let me stress that I think the solution is very interesting and that it ought to have been a satisfying one. It certainly pulls together a number of story strands and helps make sense of some aspects of the story I had not been entirely satisfied by prior to that. The problem is that while I can look back at what came before and see how everything fits, I am far from convinced that the reader is truly given enough information to reach that conclusion themselves ahead of the detectives.
This ends up undercutting the cleverness of the ending. Rather than marveling at the detective for their work at piecing it all together and thinking we might have reached the same result, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed – if not cheated – when Gamadge reveals the truth.
The Verdict: A frustrating read. Daly has some interesting ideas and themes for this book but the pacing in the middle third seems off while the novel’s solution feels inadequately clued. While it is not without interest, puzzle fans may want to look to other works first.
Second Opinions: Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime was disappointed with the book, noting that we are told but not shown information and was dissatisfied with the sudden solution.
Bev @ My Readers Block found the story a little hard to follow though wondered if this might be attributed to her slightly abridged copy. I had a similar experience in spite of having the full text.