|the 1991 IPL edition|
with cover art by Nicky Zann
The novel was filmed under the same title two years later, in an adaptation starring Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner (a review of this film is coming soon).
Peter Duluth and his wife, Iris, would appear two years later in the Patrick Quentin novel My Son, the Murderer (written solo by Wheeler, after Webb had retired from the partnership), but in that novel it is his brother, Jake, who has the lead role, not Peter himself.
And that was the end of the Duluth trail, if not of the Patrick Quentin novels, which continued to appear until 1965.
The innovation of the Peter Duluth series, which was launched in 1936, was wedding the formal deductive mystery to the personal anxiety, or suspense, tale, associated with such writers as Mignon Eberhart in the 1930s, Dorothy B. Hughes in the 1940s (though some of Hughes' stuff is more genuine noir) and Ursula Curtiss in the 1950s. There is resemblance to Cornell Woolrich as well, though the series is not dark enough to qualify quite as true noir, in my opinion.
This arrangement must have suited the two authors, as Webb was the plotter and had excelled at plotting in his earlier "Q. Patrick" books, some of which were written with others before he teamed up with Wheeler, while Wheeler was the actual writer.
|the 1952 first edition|
complete with a rental library sticker
In Black Widow the narrator of the novel, Peter Duluth, a celebrated play producer, is having to stag it in New York, his wife Iris, a celebrated actress on both stage and screen, having left New York to spend some time with her sick mother. When the novel opens he is attending a party in the luxury apartment above his own that is occupied by Lottie Marin, celebrated stage actress and absolute drama queen, and her amiable kept hunk of a husband, Brian (domesticated, not celebrated).
The marital relationship between Lottie and Brian inverts fifties heterosexual norms:
She had discovered him when she did her only picture in Hollywood five years before. He was a Montana boy who had been in the Coast Guard during the war. He had all the standard male requirements except any visible ambition....But Lottie really preferred to keep him at home as a private asset and he never objected. He seemed perfectly happy answering her fan mail, cooking for her, running errands, and reminding her how wonderful she was.
At the party Peter meets Nanny Ordway, an earnest young Greenwich Village would-be writer, and he takes a personal (non-sexual) interest in her. Over the several weeks that Iris is out-of-town, he takes her out occasionally and is even persuaded by her to let her have a key to his apartment, so that she may have a better place to write in the mornings and afternoons, when he's not around (okay, I found this a little hard to swallow too).
Unhappily, when Iris gets back, the pair finds that Nanny has not left the apartment that day. Rather, she is hanging from the ceiling light in their bedroom, a seeming suicide.
|the fifties Dell edition|
But it could get worse yet. What if it turns out Nanny Ordway was murdered? Peter decides he has to investigate Nanny's enigmatic past to save his own neck.
This is a slickly told tale that demands reading at one sitting, and it's not surprising at all to find that it was filmed not long after its publication. There's the customary twist PQ twist ending, though with the small circle of suspects provided, PQ has set himself a challenging task in misdirecting readers. In retrospect one can see there were some clever clues to the solution provided in the text, but one is apt to be so carried away on the tide of anxiety that one may miss these!
As Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler were major contributors to mid-century American crime fiction, though their books all are out-of-print in the Anglo-American world today, a regrettable situation that one hopes will be corrected in the not-too-distant future.
Patrick Quentin's Peter Duluth Mystery Novels
A Puzzle for Fools 1936
Puzzle for Players 1938
Puzzle for Puppets 1944
Puzzle for Wantons 1945
Puzzle for Fiends 1946
Puzzle for Pilgrims 1947
Run to Death 1948
Black Widow 1952
My Son, the Murderer 1954 (sporadic appearances by Peter and Iris Duluth)