I had planned to title this post, “One Cranky Voice Among Many,” because today is my one-year anniversary as a blogger. But then I thought, “Okay, you made a small hoopla about your 100th post only a couple of weeks ago, so enough is enough! Plus, you’re not really cranky, just opinionated.”
What has one year of blogging brought me? Well, first and foremost, it has given me a platform on which I can blather on about the esoteric things that interest me. Since nobody else within 100 miles seems to share my interests, I have connected with people (bonus: from all over the world!) who do. These interactions have been so delightful that I count many of these new acquaintances as friends. The Tuesday Night Bloggers, mixed with the “Verdict of Us All” group – Bev, Moira, Curtis, Rich, Noah, Steve, John, and most especially, my staunch amigos Kate and JJ, have given a whole new zing to my lifelong love of mysteries. And I have connected to others over Hitchcock and theatre and other passions. I even have thirty-nine followers, folks! These people are so insightful that, whether they agree or disagree with me, I always learn something from them. And I hope that, if I keep plugging along for another year, by next September I will have forty followers!
But enough about me! Let’s talk about my opinions! I owe the following review to Kate and Curtis, although they don’t know it. Through Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp blog (he who inspired me to start writing this thing!), we have all discovered “new” forgotten authors whom we have praised, panned, argued over and enjoyed arguing over. The first one that really made me jump up and down with joy was Harriet Rutland, who only wrote three mysteries. The first one, Knock Murderer Knock, takes place at a hotel (well, a hydro-spa that also serves as a hotel), and I loved it so much that I bought all three of her books on my Kindle and have spaced them out so that I can savor my Rutland experience. And they only cost ninety-nine cents apiece.
So did the works of Ianthe Jerrold, who only wrote two mysteries, although her books have since shot up in price on Amazon, one to $1.99 and the better one, Dead Man’s Quarry, to $6.15. I still need to buy these. I think I’m waiting for a sale!
Eilis Dillon is an Irish writer whose prolific career, funnily enough included only three mysteries. Her first, Death at Crane’s Court, also takes place at a hotel. The price for her books on Kindle is $3.99 a piece which still isn’t bad! I mean, you have to hand it to the folks at Amazon who are making it easy for those of us looking to rediscover writers from the classic era of mysteries to collect new writers, at least virtually. (I did read Death at Crane’s Court, although spent much more on an actual book at The Mysterious Bookstore in NYC. I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as Rutland’s debut.) Next, Kate heaped high praise on another forgotten female mystery writer, Margaret Armstrong, who – you guessed it – only wrote three mysteries, the first of which was Murder in Stained Glass. This does not take place in a hotel, but it sounded interesting, and guess what? All three of Armstrong’s mysteries can be found for ninety-nine cents in the Kindle bin! So I decided on a whim to purchase them all.
Of course, Amazon, always the clever marketing strategist, immediately popped some more writers on my page: “IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LOOOOVVVE THIS!!!” “This” proved to be an American author named Anita Blackmon, who wrote – yup! – three mysteries in the late1930’s. Two of these books feature a female sleuth named Miss Adelaide Adams, who is described as “irascible.” Well, that’s a great word. Plus, the first mystery, Murder a la Richelieu (1937) takes place in a hotel! Feeling I was on a roll, I purchased the two Miss Adams mysteries, both costing – stay with me now – ninety-nine cents. (Oddly enough three different publishers handle Adams. Black Heath Classic Crime charges 99¢, while Lost Crime Classics charges $3.99. I bought the cheap copy, but I have just discovered that the more expensive one includes an introduction by Curtis himself! That might make the extra cost worth it. Curtis actually mentioned these books on his blog, but it was a year before I discovered this virtual world of mystery fans, so I didn’t know!
It’s fascinating how the two publishers describe the book differently. Black Heath stresses the mystery:
Adelaide Adams is a tough old spinster, living a quiet life at the Hotel Richelieu, somewhere in the southern United States. But her peaceful existence is shattered when a man is found brutally murdered in her room. More murders follow and, as suspicion falls on all of the hotel residents in turn, Adelaide teams up with the handsome salesman Stephen Lansing to solve the crime. But with a psychotic killer on the loose, they find that amateur sleuthing is not the safest of pass-times…
Sounds interesting, right? That’s the blurb that sold me. Then I found the Lost Crime Classics version, which focuses on the comedy element:
In the opening pages of “the old battle-ax” Adelaide Adams’ debut appearance, Murder á la Richelieu, Anita Blackmon signals her readers that she is humorously aware of the grand old, much-mocked but much-read “Had I But Known” tradition that she is mining when she has Adelaide declare: “Had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels.” Unfortunately, Adelaide confides: “There was nothing on this particular morning to indicate the reign of terror into which we were about to be precipitated. Coming events are supposed to cast their shadows before, yet I had no presentiment about the green spectacle case which was to play such a fateful part in the murders, and not until it was forever too late did I recognize the tragic significance back of Polly Lawson’s pink jabot and the Anthony woman’s false eyelashes.” Well! What reader can stop there? . . .”
So is this book supposed to be a parody of a classic mystery from the pre-Golden Age in the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition. Let’s look inside and see what we’ve got:
The Richelieu Hotel services both residents and transient tourists. Why tourists might come to this town we may never know as, through the entire novel, nobody seems to leave the building. Adelaide has lived off her considerable inheritance at the Richelieu for a great many years. We learn that she once gave up the love of her life to care for her invalid father, and she does not wear her spinsterhood with much charm. She devotes a lot of her narration telling us what’s wrong with everyone around her. (In all fairness, she is sometimes hard on herself as well.) She makes snap judgments about people, most of which turn out to be wrong. She throws her considerable weight around, terrorizing or annoying employees and guests alike over trivial things in her trivial life. She even has hard feelings for her best (and only?) friend, Ella Trotter, because the woman enjoys winning at cards too much. She harbors old-fashioned sexist attitudes about her own sex, agreeing with one lovelorn female character that “women are kittle cattle.” Most unpleasantly, she displays the casual racism for the African American labor force who work at the hotel, each of them depicted in gross stereotype. This was no doubt the status quo mindset for faded ladies of the South at the time. I don’t know if this is a stab at characterization on Blackmun’s part, or if it reflects beliefs founded on the author’s own upbringing (she’s from Arkansas), but it still stinks. Since there was no warning about this when I read the blurb and the five positive reviews on Amazon, consider yourselves warned.
Adelaide is surrounded by people – a lot of people – in this book. There’s the proprietress of the hotel, Sophie Scott, who used to be close to Adelaide until Sophie married the highly unsuitable Cyril Fancher, who seems to hold a dark secret in his willowy frame. Could it have something to do with the series of young waitresses who come and go through his employ at the hotel coffee shop? All of these women seem to bear some dark secret! There’s the beautiful Kathleen Adair and her addled mother, whose closeness masks dark secrets. Then there’s the gay young Polly Lawson, who lives for some reason with her Aunt Mary at the hotel. Polly used to have an understanding with clean-cut banker Howard Warren, but for some reason, she has started stepping out with the dashing cosmetics salesman and roué, Stephen Lansing. By the way, I forgot to mention that all four of these people have a dark secret. I also need to add Lottie Mosby, who also lives at the hotel and has been stepping out on her drunken husband Dan with, of all people, Stephen Lansing. There’s something dark and secretive about that couple, if you ask me. Then there’s Pinkney Dodge, the night clerk, known to everyone as Pinky because “it suited his weak eyes and pinkish hair.” His obsession with his mother puts me in mind of another hotel clerk; clearly, Pinky has his own dark secrets as well. And I would keep an eye out on Hilda Anthony, a voluptuous woman “of questionable reputation” who came to this small backwater Southern town from New York in order to obtain a divorce and then has spent all her time since living at the hotel in order to find a rich husband. Since that goal is impossible to obtain at the Richelieu, Hilda must have a dark secret! Especially as she spends all her time frolicking with Stephen Lansing! (What is the secret to your stamina, sir?)
These people live and/or work at the hotel and never seem to go anywhere else. They eat all their meals at the coffee shop, and most of them seem to sit around the large lobby people-watching and muttering about the tourists, or entertaining each other in their rooms. It’s putters along on the strength of Adelaide’s (or Blackmun’s) writing style, which is floridly old-fashioned and includes a lot of those references to the HIBK school of mystery that are described in the Amazon blurb. This style is not really to my taste and took me by surprise. That’s what comes of reading the cheap blurb!
Into this menagerie comes a visitor from New Orleans named James Reid, who snoops around a lot and tries without success to ingratiate himself with Miss Adams. Imagine Adelaide’s distress when one afternoon she enters her room to find Mr. Reid hanging from her chandelier by a rope, his throat cut. Enter Inspector Bunyan of Scotland Yard . . . oh, I wish. No, he’s the local homicide detective, and despite his dogged efforts, people keep dying on his watch, sometimes quite literally under his nose. It doesn’t help that the suspects all refuse to cooperate until the end when a mountain of unleashed dark secrets threatens to crush the hotel – and this reader – under its weight.
I can’t help but pull out Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock once again for a comparison, and Blackmon’s plotting, characterization, and prose creak a lot more. In true American style, the murders are all much gorier at the Richelieu, and the secrets revealed about many of the guests are surprisingly salacious. The plot goes a rat-a-tat-tatting along, but it lacks Rutland’s cleverness and genuine humor. The developing relationship between Adelaide and Stephen Lansing (who emerges as the true hero, no surprise there) is one of the high points of the novel, and by the end they work together to bring down a number of criminal elements. Still, Miss Marple she ain’t! If I had been a resident of that hotel at the time, I could have pointed to the killer in a jiffy, prevented three more murders, and saved everyone a lot of trouble.
So now I find myself faced with the second Adelaide Adams mystery on my queue. There Is No Return takes place at yet another hotel, where the ghost of rich heiress Gloria Canby seems to be gunning for her surviving relatives. Luckily Adelaide Adams has joined her friend Ella for a vacation at the very same hotel, where she’s just too crabby to believe in ghosts and decides to solve a murder or two. And I’m left wondering how much I am up for another ride with this cantankerous old biddy.
But then, it only cost me 99¢.