--Death's Old Sweet Song (1946), Jonathan Stagge
Freaky serial murder fiction existed long before the 1990s and the likes of such utterly awful but strangely charismatic fava- and flesh-devouring gentlemen as Hannibal Lecter. The bestselling mystery of all time, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (it sits as well at #6 among the bestselling novels of all time, right behind The Hobbit and the first of those Harry Potter stories), is a serial murder novel, as is another one of the Queen of Crime's perennial fan favorites, The ABC Murders.
And Then There Were None so teasingly is built around a a children's rhyme which is the US is known as Ten Little Indians and in the UK as, well, something else that need not be mentioned here! Today, out of imperatives of cultural sensitivity, the rhyme is everywhere, I believe, called "Ten Little Soldier Boys." Be that as it may, Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the clever lads behind Jonathan Stagge, turned to a less controversial source for their Stagge serial murder novel Death's Old Sweet Song: the English folk song Green Grow the Rushes-O.
I'm an American, as I assume everyone who reads this blog knows, and before I read this Stagge novel I only knew Green Grows the Rushes from the 1980s REM song--which, as it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with the English folk song. The latter tune is one of those insidious cumulative songs, like The Twelve Days of Christmas, where you keep adding a verse each time. In Death's Old Sweet Song the pertinent verses are these six:
Five for the SYMBOLS AT YOUR DOOR
Four for the GOSPEL MAKERS
Three, three, the RIVALS
Two, Two, the LILY-WHITE BOYS
Clothed all in green-O
One is One and All Alone
And Evermore Shall Be So
I don't know about you, but those last lines seem pretty ominous, like Christie's death knell And then there were none. And Death's Old Sweet Song is a pretty ominous book, with no less than six murders over the course of a few days--or perhaps seven, depending on your personal definition of murder. (The Six Proud Walkers, by the name, is the title of a Golden Age Francis Beeding thriller.)
It's not remotely realistic, when you really think about it, but it's damned ingenious and the skill of the writing, in its setting and characterization, almost makes you believe in the plausibility of the mayhem.
Dr. Hugh Westlake makes his eighth appearance in this, the penultimate and possibly peak Jonathan Stagge novel, as does his daughter Dawn (seemingly stuck at the age of 12 now), Scottish terrier Hamish and the doc's best friend, Inspector Cobb. Song was followed by The Three Fears, which, though it has Dr. Westlake, feels more like a Patrick Quentin novel than a Jonathan Stagge. But then Rickie Webb had nothing to do with actually writing The Three Fears. Song feels like it had some influence at least from Rickie, both in its puzzle plotting and its general gruesomeness.
The first victims are two young boys, twins, who are knocked on their heads and drowned at a picnic which Hugh and Dawn attended. They are portrayed as awful brats, but, still, it's pretty darn nasty. Then there is another murder and another murder and Dr. Westlake tumbles to the fact that the deaths are replicating verses in an odd and enigmatic English folksong song that was sung at the picnic: Green Grow the Rushes-O.
Sure you can see the influence of Christie's book here, but the Stagge tale is really good in its own right. (And I wonder whether it influenced Ellery Queen's New England jingle-mystery Double, Double, 1950.) As far as puzzlement goes, even after I started moving in the right direction (this is a typically twisty Webb-Wheeler production), I still missed key points, which are so very nicely clued. I think it the kind of neatly crafted puzzle that should make the classic mystery fan figuratively hug him or herself with delight--at least it did me!
The setting, a small town in the Massachusetts Berkshires where Dr. Westlake happens to be vacationing with Dawn (Death follows this dude around New England like he was Jessica Fletcher), is extremely persuasive, no doubt because (a) Hugh was a very talented writer and (b) Rickie and Hugh lived in the Berkshires themselves, along with their black cook and chauffeur, Johnny Grubbs, whom Hugh had brought back with him from the army. Johnny, whom Hugh became very close with indeed (after Rickie and Hugh broke it off, Hugh and Johnny lived together for 35 years, until Hugh's death in 1987), likely lent some heft to the recurring character of Rebecca, Dr. Westlake's black cook and housekeeper, who enjoys her most significant appearance in the series here.
There also are some echoes of Ricky's experience during the late war in the South Pacific in a veteran character, whose golden tan actually is the product of the anti-malaria drug atabrine. As for his postwar traumatic stress...well, read the book for yourself and learn all about it. In the US it soon will be reissued by Mysterious Press/Open Road.