Friday, February 15, 2013

Dark Death: Night Walk (1947), by Elizabeth Daly

In a prolific burst of creativity between 1940 and 1951 Elizabeth Daly (1878-1967) published sixteen detective novels--all with her series detective, the erudite and gentlemanly New York bibliophile Henry Gamadge--that were quite well received in her day and have maintained a loyal and not insignificant following over the decades since.

this 1963 paperback edition
updates the 1940s look of
the character Rose Jenner
Of late even paperback reprints of Daly's novels have become rather hard-to-find and pricey--there are just a handful of second-hand copies of Night Walk available on Abebooks, for example, all expensive--but fortunately over the last few years that fine press Felony and Mayhem has been reprinting her work.

The twelfth Elizabeth Daly detective novel, Night Walk (1947), is not yet back in print, but should be by this year or the next.

It is, I think, one of Daly's best efforts.  Even Jacques Barzun, who thought Daly had about a 50/50 batting average, so to speak, was an admirer of this tale.

The first four chapters of Night Walk tensely detail the sinister nocturnal perambulations of a prowler afoot in the upstate New York village of Frazer's Mills.

The prowler rattles doors and frightens people, but it seems to go no farther than that--until one longtime resident of the village is found dead, his head bloodily smashed by a log.

One of the guests at the Wakefield Inn--a transient, people in this little village keep terming him--happens to be a family friend of Henry Gamadge, the author's amateur detective, so Gamdage soon is on the scene to clear up matters.

Gamadge eventually succeeds in doing so, but not before the prowler strikes again, committing another horrid bludgeoning murder.

I found Night Walk an engrossing tale, both for its problem and for its setting.  It's often stated that Elizabeth Daly was Agatha Christie's favorite American writer, and it's easy to see why from a book like Night Walk!  Surely one can't get much more classically English in setting in an American mystery novel than Frazer's Mills.  One almost has to remind oneself that one is not, in fact, reading a Golden Age English detective novel.


Frazer's Mills is an isolated, enclosed and highly stratified village (the mills shut down long ago), dominated by a traditional squirearchy (durbars is Daly's term for these exalted personages).

"Mighty few livings earned anymore, they're all fading out on little pensions or their savings or what they're relations send 'em," explains the sheriff to Gamadge concerning the bulk of the population of Frazer's Mills.  "Scotch, English, old American stock.  Not a foreigner, not a stranger."

"It sounds rather a paradise to me," comments the well-born, old-stock Gamadge.


But the serpent of murder has invaded this lovely, rural Eden, and Gamadge must stamp it out and restore order.  This he does, on the strength of some bright intuitions that certainly passed by me.  The puzzle is thinly clued, though I think it is fair enough.  The identity of the prowler becomes, I think, pretty definitely indicated in the last third or so of the book, but the motive is what should elude many readers.

Characterization is quite good.  I particularly liked the imperious librarian and the sardonic, precocious teenager staying with his parents at the Wakefield Inn.  "She embodies in her own person the whole meaning of the theory of Conspicuous Waste," this lad pronounces of another character.  Now that's a high-toned burn!

Don't despair of getting an affordable copy of Night Walk.  Felony & Mayhem should soon come to the rescue!

10 comments:

  1. It has been a while since I read this one, Curt, although I do remember that unnerving opening sequence with the prowler stalking the town. If I had to pick a favorite, I suspect it might be "The Book of the Dead," where the plot twists really are stunning - though the clues are there for the finding.

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    1. I'm reading my way through her series bit by bit, Les!

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  2. This sounds like just the sort of thing small town mystery I love to read. I've only ever read one of Daly's books and I didn't love it, though I expected to. But I'm willing to read more especially something like this. I am intrigued. :)

    Will wait impatiently for Felony and Mayhem to do their thing. (And thank goodness for them.)

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    1. Yvette,

      I think this one will be out within a year with Felony & Mayhem. It's one I'm sure Christie herself liked! The only thing missing was a map of the village!

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  3. I had no idea how scarce this one is. While there are 20+ copies out there for sale online in a variety of editions from Harlequin paperback to Rinehart 1st edition I found only three copies of NIGHT WALK under $20, one amazingly is a first edition. But the prices hardly reflect what is being sold. Detective Book Club three-in-one volume for $45? A Dell paperback for $148? What on earth has happened to the used book trade? Sometimes it's very upsetting and depressing to check up on these older out of print books.

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    1. Dalys have really shot up. You used to able to get those Bantam editions for a song.

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  4. Oddly enough I just re-read this the other day, and in the depicted Berkley edition. But I was curious to see how high the prices were ( since I have a couple of editions). Abebooks only offers five copies. I think the "Harlequin" reference is the bookseller's error; it's given the same date as the Berkley edition and Harlequin per se was at that point only doing romances. The Dell 1982 edition is what's called a "puzzleback" as it is part of a numbered series, so that in my experience people will pay more for this specific edition ($47 on Abe seems high to me; $148 is ridiculous). I also cannot understand US$60 for a Detective Book Club edition, but I noted two things; one is that people have actually started to collect this series, and the other is that this particular volume contains three interesting books, the others by Rex Stout and Thomas B. Dewey.
    It's strange, though, how high the prices are. Perhaps Daly's work was at the point of scarcity where a nicely-designed uniform edition will keep the series alive for another 20 or 30 years, so I encourage Felony and Mayhem to bring it out. I confess I agree with Barzun that she is hit-and-miss, and to me some of the books seem so painfully genteel as to be soporific; but she understood a certain small segment of American society and depicted it in vivid detail.

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    1. Noah,

      I agree some of her books for me err too much on the genteel side. I like a bit more bite in the narrative. I think this was one of the better ones.

      Felony & Mayhem is doing her proud, they have some lovely editions. Wish they would do Henry Wade!

      I remember those Dell puzzlebacks, used to get those at used bookstores in the 1990s.

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  5. I just read Somewhere in the House. It was the first of her books I've tried. I thought it was okay, but I found it annoying that most of the story was told through dialogue. It seemed like 95% of the words in the book were being spoken by someone. I don't know how unusual that is or if I regularly read books like that without noticing it, but this time I did. It really got on my nerves. I also found the characters mostly pretty dull. I thought it perked up a bit towards the end, and the solution was quite good.

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    1. I just got this book from Felony & Mayhem a few weeks ago, Mark. Agatha Christie, to cite the most famous name, tells most of her stories mostly though dialogue. This is not something that bothers me--if the dialogue is good or at least functional and drives the plot forward efficiently.

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