Friday, November 29, 2013

Murder Most Haughty: Death Is Late to Lunch (1941), by Theodora DuBois

In my earlier blog post today on Theodora DuBois I noted that, despite having a bright young couple as her detectives (a popular mystery fiction variant), she is mostly forgotten today and has been out-of-print for the last forty years.

Admittedly, Death Is Late to Lunch was not considered her most accomplished mystery, but from it I can sense what may be the key factor that would limit her popularity today: the excessive snobbery of Anne McNeill, the female half of her sleuthing duo.  A book like this today, even were it written, would never be published without some severe editing.

Of course Golden Age British detective fiction often is accused of snobbery (see Colin Watson's book Snobbery with Violence, for example), and, one must admit, it's not entirely without justification. But people often forget that during the Golden Age there were many "English-style" American mysteries as well, set at posh houses among the upper crust; and the authors' attitudes towards these characters often was a far cry from the cynical and iconoclastic Raymond Chandler's.

DuBois' Anne McNeill is so hoity-toity that she makes England's Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh look like a band of Jacobins by comparison.  And since she narrates the book you have to put up with her all the time.  Her more likable medical researcher husband pops in and out of the novel (primarily to discover the murder means and finally collar the killer through some technical gizmo), but Anne we always have with us.

Certainly a colorful dust jacket
(note the little death's head stamens)
Death Is Late to Lunch takes place at a posh "convalescent inn" (the setting reminded me of P. D. James' The Private Patient), where Anne has gone to stay with her college-age brother "Bud," a former tuberculosis patient who came down with measles. Anne's toddler son Michael has been left at home, under the care of a nurse (naturally Anne has plenty of servants).

Anne assures us right off the bat that the people at the convalescent inn "were well bred, at least most of them." Soon she has gotten more specific, dividing the guests into the categories of "nice" and "not nice."

The four maids, incidentally, never get named by Anne (not even a "Gladys" or an "Ethel"), leaving one with the impression she doesn't know their names.  When two are singled out by Anne for special mention, she complains that the one is stupid and that the other is insolent--help these days, really!

After the doctor's male secretary suspiciously slides to his death off the mansard roof of the old house, Anne isn't too concerned, because she puts him in the not nice category (not coincidentally for Anne, I suspect, he's of South American origin and he reads D. H. Lawrence); and nice people would be inconvenienced were his death ruled murder rather than accident.

Among the adult guests of the inn, three are nice and two are not nice (we know the latter are not nice because they are unattractive, have poor fashion sense and exhibit emotions in public).  Our Anne is certain that if the secretary was indeed murdered it was one of the not nice people who did the deed.

When one of the remaining not nice people dies suspiciously from sunburn, Anne's husband Jeffrey starts snooping into things (the local cops being utterly incompetent), even though Anne herself is still not all that interested (what's one less not nice person in the world). Jeffrey discovers an interesting medical murder method, but is then called away again, leaving Anne to hold the fort.

Anne has as much contempt for the police as she does for the servants.  Says she of one cop, "....his uniform was a little too small for him. He looked bunchy and the buttons were too tight.  His face was bunchy too, but not the amiable puffy kind of Irish face; antagonistic, suspicious."  Take it from me, by Anne' standards "amiable puffy kind of Irish face" is as close as she gets to a compliment when she's dealing with what she would deem an "ethnic" person.

At one point Anne and Bud find and hide a murder weapon from the police and when, after eavesdropping on her telephone conversation, the police discover it, she berates them for "wiretapping."  I was waiting for them to clap her in irons at this point, but no such luck.

Here's how Anne's mind works as she describes the nice mother of the nice female love interest in the book:

There was attractive elegance about her.  One knew that her clothes must have come from the best Madison and Fifth Avenue Places.  Her gray hair was always immaculately set and waved.....She was the president of the local garden club and had done so much for the community, planting roses on the banks along the roadside, stimulating the school-children to plant flower borders and to wage war against ragweed.

As she talked I thought "No garden club president could ever murder anyone."  Besides which she would never bring herself to wear so uncouth a garment as the Tyrolean cape, even to go on a roof at two o'clock in the morning.  She would wear her own spring evening cloak.  She belonged to a generation and a caste [the author's own naturally--TPT] that did not lightly throw around one's shoulders borrowed "wraps."

the jacket back to
Death Is Late to Lunch
This sort of thing likely quickly pales on most modern readers as a matter of tone and sentiment, but, even worse, from the technical standpoint in a mystery, is that the author so determinedly exonerates all the "nice people" from the get-go.  If this were Agatha Christie, one of those "nice people" would likely be the killer! "Trust no one," that was Dame Agatha's motto.

We are left with hardly any suspects, although given her self-imposed constraints the author does manage something of a twist solution. Unfortunately, it is not a fair play one, and the book quickly comes to a halt, as if the author were simply tired of the whole affair.

Indicative of this exhaustion is the lazy title, which kept up the "Death" series DuBois had launched several years earlier, but barely even makes sense for this book. With more accuracy it could have been called "Death Pushes a Guy Off the Roof" or "Death Gives Some Screwy Dame Sunburn." Tellingly, this was DuBois' last "Death" title.

Despite noting in a 1945 book review that "Anne's snobbery...grows less endurable book by book," the great American mystery critic Anthony Boucher liked some of DuBois' earlier mysteries, referring to her 1940 novel Death Comes to Tea as a "small masterpiece."  DuBois does have some virtues, namely a smooth narrative and a good murder means, so I might give her another try someday, even though I'm afraid that

Anne McNeill
Needs to get real.

Next up: some info on the owners of my copy of Death Is Late to Lunch, along with what they left inside the book.

4 comments:

  1. sounds (unintentionally) hilarious!

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    1. Poor Margery A. and the Crime Queens get so much grief for snobbery, the critics should read DuBois!

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  2. The dinner party nonsense in DEATH DINES OUT is equally snobby and just as risible. But there are two rave reviews over at goodreads. One man's meat... I can see why it would appeal to readers who eat up those cheese store, bakery and dog grooming shop mysteries. It was rife with all that suburban melodrama found in those "cozy" mystery novels that always remind me of those movies you find on the Lifetime channel.

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    1. She's definitely cozy, or more cozy-haughty, really. The tone would out a lot of modern readers off, but you're right, it's a cozy milieu.

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