A question for my fellow bloggers: do you ever start writing a book review before you finish the book? Maybe you write the introduction, giving background on the author or the history of the novel in question. Maybe you’re halfway through reading, and you’re getting a really good – or bad – feeling about how the book makes you feel, and the inspiration to write hits you, and you just . . . begin. Personally speaking, I have no consistent answer to this question. Sometimes I wait, sometimes I write along – it all depends on the book.
Take this current offering, for instance: Nigel Morland’s 1951 mystery Death When She Wakes. I wrote an introduction a week ago because 1) I had a cute story to tell about it, and 2) I had a pretty good idea where the book was taking me and how I felt about it. But then – as can happen when you’re reading an old book by an unknown author – this one took such a shocking turn that I had to pause and think: what the hell am I going to write about this one?
And I had to start over.
I have no pics to show, so you might as well look at these adorable ones of my cats.
Which doesn’t mean there’s no room for a cute story! Because the history of my relationship with this book has such a nice beginning. It began on a Monday night two weeks ago in, of all places, London, England, as I was walking to the tube with Daniel Curtis, the charming blogger from The Reader Is Warned, after what has to rank as one of the loveliest evenings of my life.
We had dined with JJ, and the three of us had talked for hours about mysteries, with the focus on, of all people, Agatha Christie. (These conversations were actually recorded, but it is not up to me as to whether they will ever see the light of day, in one form or another.) Daniel and I walked to the tube station and jumped on a train in that glorious stupor reserved for fans of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer who have just left Comic-Con, having attended a two-hour forum featuring the Entire Cast – even Sarah Michelle Gellar!!!
We rode past a couple of stops before Daniel disembarked, leaving me with two valuable pieces of information:
1. he reminded me that Quinto’s bookstore on Charing Cross Road restocks their shelves every Tuesday afternoon;
2. he told me that he had put me on the wrong train.
I could never stay mad at Daniel!
I’ll move past how long it took me to get home that night. Suffice it to say that the following day found me at Quinto‘s bookstore at 15:30pm where, in the tiny subterranean area where they keep the crime novels, I jostled with fourteen or fifteen other greedy men in search of hidden treasures.
I had almost given up when I found this book, with a slightly torn but compelling cover, for only 10 pounds. (You can’t even find the cover on the internet; I had to take a picture.) I might not have even bought it, but the inside cover promised that this was a locked room mystery, and that Morland had managed to “think up something so new and vitally different, yet horribly plausible” for the genre that it “may become a classic of its kind.”
Before I left England, I dangled the fact that I had found an obscure impossible crime novel in front of JJ. I did not reveal the title or author until I had returned to the States, at the mention of which JJ responded (and I quote): ““Huh. How about that – got a couple of Morland tales coming up next week. Serendipity!” You can read JJ’s post here, along with two short-short tales, along with JJ’s dare that you match wits with Nigel Morland.
There are quite a few stories and novels of Morland’s listed in Adey’s compendium of classic locked room mysteries, including Death When She Wakes. The book is 258 pages long and is divided into twenty-one chapters. Up until Chapter 21, my fingers were itching to write one type of review. And then I finished the thing . . . and I don’t quite know what to do except discuss it with you and broach the issue that came up. It’s nothing new, we’ve all talked about this before . . . but boy can it make a difference to one’s enjoyment of a novel.
Brad is such . . . . . . . . . a tease.
It was hard to find a lot of information about Nigel Morland. He began his writing career as a journalist and makes beautiful use of it here, since the world of journalism makes up a big part of DWSW. For a while, Morland was secretary to none other than Edgar Wallace, who also must have been a journalist, since Morland makes mention of this in the book. One thing we know is that Wallace was a mentor and friend to the younger author, and evidently many of Morland’s earlier works have the same tone of adventure as Wallace’s books.
The best classification for Death When She Wakes is police procedural, This was the first of only two novels featuring Detective Inspector Rory Luccan of Scotland Yard. Luccan is a highly attractive character who reminds me of Norman Berrow’s equally appealing New Zealand investigator, Lancelot Carolus Smith. The son of a famous Home Office forensic chemist and a Scottish mother possessed of a fine sense of humor and (perhaps) second sight, Luccan has a keen mind and a friendly, natural personality. Like Smith, he surrounds himself with equally well-drawn sergeants, medical examiners and cops on the beat.
Read this instead!!!!!
Luccan is asked by his superior, Superintendent Cross, to investigate matters at the Tribune, a daily rag whose star has risen dramatically thanks to a threatening letter that was received by Kate Garden, the paper’s gossip columnist. In description, Kate might remind some of you of the notorious American gossip, Hedda Hopper: “. . . a lanky and cynical woman with certain pretensions to beauty, a taste in hats that was the butt of every porter in Covent Garden, and a writer with Chesterton’s genius for paradox, allied to the muck-raking abilities of a street arab.” Malicious though she may be, Kate trades in very minor gossip, so the idea that she could have angered someone so much that they would send a very public warning that she will die on the morning of Monday, February 7, seems ludicrous.
Everyone, including Kate, treats the threat as a big joke – everyone except for the paper’s new editor, a brash and enormously fat American named Mobile Jones, who exploits the threat every day on the front page until all of London is waiting breathless to see if Kate bites the dust at the appointed time.
Cross and Luccan do not approve, of course, of these journalistic hijinks, and on the night before the so-called assassination, Luccan visits Kate at her apartment, where journalists have set up shop and where Mobile Jones has equipped Kate’s room with enough safeguards that it seems nobody could touch her. (Two maps of Kate’s apartment are supplied for the reader’s edification.)
The floor plan for another mystery that I’m going to read soon!
Of course, this being a murder mystery, Kate winds up dead despite all precautions – and under seemingly impossible circumstances. (Interestingly, this is the second book I’ve read that incorporates a Judas Window – and it seems to be something very different from the one described in Carter Dickson’s novel.) From then on, the novel switches back and forth between Luccan’s thorough, but never dull, investigation (we not only get to watch him take the murder scene apart, we also get to sit in on the autopsy) and the way the press manipulates the murder to its own ends.
At first, I thought that the journalistic aspects of the novel mirrored a significant film that also came out in 1951. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was the first film he wrote and directed after ending his brilliant, if dysfunctional, professional relationship with Charles Brackett. The film was released without Wilder’s permission under a different title: The Big Carnival. (The original title was not restored until the film aired on TV – and was released on DVD – in 2007.) A failure at the time, Ace is an excoriating look at the tabloid press and its toxic relationship with the public. In short, it’s really dark and compelling film noir.
Ace in the Hole: one of Kirk Douglas’ greatest roles.
We see some inklings of this in the opening chapters of Morland’s novel, starting with the jovially mercenary attitude of Mobile Jones, who is out to increase the paper’s sales by any means necessary:
“One day, when I’m blessed with a million readers, I shall also have a nice fat libel fund. Why? Because it’s worth my while to sell a million copies and pay a thousand out of court to settle a deliberate libel, than to miss a chance of plastering some poor devil all over the front page.”
Mobile blatantly (and with no little charm) admits that Kate’s death would be good for business, and his attitude is echoed by the crowd that waits outside Kate’s posh apartment building, itching for blood. Still, Morland promises Luccan that he has done all he can to protect the columnist (“Kate’s going to bed that night with more men round her than any woman in the history of this world!”)
After the murder, and despite the Tribune’s efforts to capitalize on it, the whole staff begins to come off as a lovely group of people. You can’t help but like this team, led by an ace reporter, Rossiter “Rosie” O’Grady. O’Grady is engaged to a fine young actress who was also present at Kate’s apartment on the night of the murder, and when she decries to her fiancé and his boss that the advantage taken by the press of the murder seems ghoulish, Mobile reminds her that if she were run over that day, her own understudy would take over her role with great cheer.
We need to hug more cats . . . . . . . .
Both the press chapters and the Luccan chapters just breeze along. And then we get to a second murder: a man is stabbed to death outside Rosie’s apartment building. He is killed in front of a witness, an elderly neighbor who insists that the killer was invisible. Et voila, another impossible crime.
Luccan’s investigation forces him to attend a second autopsy and leads to a thrilling chase, one that I’ll bet you would see in many an Edgar Wallace tale. But before the Inspector can bring the killer to heel, another death will occur – not impossible this time but a hugely dramatic death of a major character. And finally Luccan will put the last pieces of the puzzle together and solve the mystery of these three deaths.
I tell you, folks: from Chapters 1 – 20, the whole thing is highly admirable, and while I don’t think it breaks the new ground promised on the inner cover (according to Adey, the murder method had already been used by Morland himself in a short story five years earlier – just not one of the tales JJ put into his post, mind you), it’s probably more fairly clued than the short-shorts were – up to a point.
Here it comes . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But, friends, I cannot recommend this novel. Because the final exclamation relies on such ugly stuff, the kind of racist crap we try our best to excuse these men and women of a certain era of perpetuating because “they were the attitudes of the time.” The solution to the problem of the “invisible killer” is revolting rubbish, and there is a major element to the first crime that sours it completely for me. And frankly, the explanation for the third death bothers me for entirely different reasons.
So, no spoilers beyond that warning. I will leave it to you, dear readers, to decide what you want to do. Each of you knows your own threshold for this kind of BS. Having closed the book on the same day that the U.S. President tweeted his racist rants probably didn’t help matters for me. I think that I would probably read another Morland, like one of the Mrs. Pyms, for his style –if someone can assure me that it is free of the attitudes that crashed into me at the end of Death When She Wakes. I did check on both eBay and Abe Books and cannot find a single copy of this, so ironically I might have one of the only extant copies available of this charmingly racist screed. Whoopee!