Friday, May 10, 2013

Milk Didn't Do This Body Good: Pure Poison (1966), by Hillary Waugh

Ed McBain's older 87th Precinct novels all are back in print, but the novels by another important American pioneer of the police procedural, Hillary Waugh (1920-2008), are not.  Even Waugh's Last Seen Wearing (1952), an acknowledged police procedural cornerstone, is out-of-print, not to mention Waugh's series of eleven novels about the investigative exploits of small-town Connecticut police chief Fred C. Fellows, which spanned the years from 1959 to 1968.

Waugh's 1966 mystery Pure Poison was the penultimate entry in the series.  As is to be expected from Waugh, this novel offers readers a solid murder problem, realistically investigated.

In Pure Poison, Roger Chapman, Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Stockford, Connecticut, dies as a result of eating a single creamed onion while at dinner with his wife.  The milk Betty Chapman used in preparing the creamed onions was loaded with strychnine. Mrs. Chapman, who tasted only a speck of the creamed onions after her husband complained of the flavor, becomes quite sick, but recovers.

So Police Chief Fellows and his men (his men indeed are all men) are presented with a classic poisoning problem.  There are certain similarities to John Rhode's brilliant 1940s detective novel, Vegetable Duck, though Rhode's book has a more involved and ingenious problem.

Waugh offers readers a more streamlined puzzle, though it is not without interest.  There is painstaking police investigation of what seems to be a motiveless crime (I was reminded here of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery, 1933) and some good intuitive work by Chief Fellows near the end of the tale.

Basically Pure Poison struck me as an updated Golden Age "Humdrum" mystery, given a police procedural gloss.  As the author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I naturally find this sort of problem-focused novel congenial; yet I must admit that Pure Poison lacks the rapid pace and smooth narrative flow and character appeal of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct tales, which probably helps explain why Waugh's books are no longer in print and McBain's are (Waugh also stopped publishing fiction twenty years before his death, though he was only 68).

Still, if you are interested in a good police procedural problem novel, Pure Poison is a solid choice.  It encouraged me to read more titles in this Waugh series.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the recommendation! I've never heard of Hillary Waugh before.

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  2. You've nailed it! I knew that Waugh was considered important, but I never quite knew why. I had occasion within the last year to re-read Last Seen Wearing and found it charming but quite boring. (Possibly because the central idea of a young college student sleeping with a married man is not as shocking in 2013 as it was in 1952.) But now that you've opened my eyes to the idea that Waugh took the essential pieces of the Humdrums and updated them to 1952, I want to go back and read it again to see how closely Fellows and French are brothers under the skin. So thanks for the insight!
    My problem has always been that while Waugh's take on the procedural is charming, his popularity seems to have led to the nadir of the procedural form, churned out by, for instance, the ghastly Dell Shannon/Elizabeth Linington (the jacket flaps of her novels used to proudly proclaim her membership in the John Birch Society, which about says it all for her personal qualities!). Waugh's imitators took out the focus on the problem and used it as a vehicle for poorly-written novels of character, or lack of it. Thank goodness Ed McBain's work (and Waugh's reputation) has survived to keep the purer form alive.

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  3. I agree with noah-stewart about Linington. I read only one of her books because of its mystery novel gimmick (Greenmask!) but will never return to her work. Extremely strange writing style, a policeman character who has no insight about his own sex appeal, zero police work described, etc. etc. And her personal views (politics aside) leak into her books revealing her to be rather narrow-minded, IMO.

    I'm pretty sure I read a few of Waugh's books when I was in high school. Our town library in Connecticut had several of them. However, I recall nothing about them now. This one sounds intriguing. But frankly if I'm going to read a police procedural I'd rather it be gritty and urban like Jonathan Craig's books (McBain's contemporary and possible inspiration) which I am utterly addicted to.

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