Dorothy Salisbury Davis, The Clay Hand (1950)
|The Clay Hand (1950) followed The Judas Cat (1949) by a year|
--both are superlative crime novels
(featured are the striking 1952 Bantam reprints)
In 1963 Collier Books reprinted Dorothy Salisbury Davis' The Clay Hand (1950), the author's second crime novel, as part of its Mystery Classics series. In his short introduction General Editor Anthony Boucher praised the novel, set "somewhere near the point where West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio meet" (I'm guessing Wayne County, WV), for its convincing regionalism and depiction of character.
Boucher made note especially of the novel's sheriff character, Sam Fields, with his "almost Maigret-like patience and insight," and also what Boucher termed "two of the most interesting and uncategorizable women that ever a detective had to cope with." He also praised Davis, with perhaps a whiff of mid-century chauvinism, for having, though a woman, "brought off the feat of successfully writing from a wholly male viewpoint."
|Davis' third novel, A Gentle Murderer |
(1951), was also part of the
Bantam 1952 reprint series
Yet I have to concede that for a long time Davis' older crime novels, with the partial exception of A Gentle Murderer, which was reprinted by Gregg Press and Avon in the early 1980s, disappeared down the cracks of commercial neglect (see here for an interview Weinman conducted with Davis last year; Weinman has also written about Davis in the most recent issue of Mystery Scene Magazine).
Why Davis, when not Millar or Armstrong? Well, in the case of The Clay Hand, perhaps its sober regionalism made it less easy to sell in the mystery market. It is difficult to pigeonhole the novel as "psychological suspense," the niche into which Millar and Armstrong--as well as other fine mid-century women crime writers such as Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Ursula Curtiss and the English author Celia Fremlin--have been placed (nor would I call it domestic suspense, nor that egregiously overused word, noir).
The Clay Hand really is, as Boucher says, a regional mystery novel--an uncommonly fine one. It is a long novel for the period, giving Davis room to create a convincing canvas of the drab, decaying coal mining town of Winston and its odd denizens. There is an intriguing mystery as well, one that dovetails wonderfully with character and place.
Dick Coffee, crusading newspaper journalist, has died in Winston, apparently of a fall over a cliff. His best friend, sports editor Phil McGovern, and his widow, Margaret, come to Winston, where an inquest on his death is to be held. Phil has a love-hate relationship with beautiful Margaret, which only gets more complicated when it becomes clear that Coffee may have been murdered (the novel is told from Phil's viewpoint).
There are many questions for Phil and the likable county sheriff, Sam Fields. Who was the woman with green wings (a wonderfully bizarre detail) the local boy reports having seen with Coffee in the hills above Winston before Coffee's death? And what was Coffee doing in Winston, anyway? He earlier had reported on that mine disaster in Naperville--was there something untoward also going on with the mines in Winston?
Then there's that wizened, widowed boarding house keeper, Mrs. Norah O'Grady, with whom Coffee was staying--what does she know? And was Coffee having a fling with Rebecca Glasgow, the married daughter of Clauson, that eccentric old magician? And does the recent asphyxiation death of loony Kenneth Laughlin in a closed section of one of the mines have any relation to Coffee's death?
As these questions indicate, there is an intricate, engrossing mystery in The Clay Hand, but the book also succeeds wonderfully as a study of character and place (there is an eventful climax as well). It is an unusually sophisticated mid-twentieth-century crime novel, and I hope it reaches a broader audience now, in the twenty-first century.