Friday, November 30, 2012

From Laughter to Tears: A Girl Died Laughing (1934), by Viola Paradise

In last week's forgotten book post, on Milton Propper's One Murdered, Two Dead (1936), I mentioned that the Golden Age detective novelist Milton Propper was Jewish.  Another Jewish writer who contributed to the mystery field in the 1930s was Viola Isabel Paradise (1887-1980), social worker, novelist and playwright.

A University of Chicago graduate who worked at Jane Addams' famous Hull House settlement, Viola Paradise was a vocal advocate of immigrant rights who published a number of articles about immigration matters during the Golden Age of detective fiction (c.1920-1940).  By the 1930s she had moved to New York City and was a member of the New York Jewish Social Service Association.

murder in blue
Viola Paradise found time in her busy, accomplished life to publish a single detective novel, A Girl Died Laughing, in 1934.  It was quite well-received in its day--in Saturday Review Judge Lynch, for example, rendered the verdict "Excellent" upon it--and it was published in England as well (in 1935) and reprinted in paperback in the United States (in 1944), but it is quite forgotten today.

This is a shame, for A Girl Died Laughing is a good detective novel, with a interesting, genuinely clued mystery plot and able depictions of New York City life in the 1930s.

My copy has a full page inscription from the author, about which more later.

While stopping at the apartment building of his fiancee, Adelaide Sayre, to take her out for the evening, archaeologist Sheridan Dinard (now there's an amateur detective name if I ever heard one--except he's not one) hears, behind the door of another apartment, the laughter of a "girl" (this is the 1930s, so what is meant, of course, is a woman in her twenties).

The laughter is suddenly cut off, but Dinard thinks little of that.  However, since we know we are reading a murder mystery, we know better than Sheridan Dinard, of course.

It's only when Dinard and Sayre return to the apartment building that they learn that this laughing girl--whose identity seems to be unknown--was murdered (stabbed).  And Dinard seems to the police's leading suspect!

Even though the girl who died laughing (as she is dubbed by the press) is unidentified, the crime seems to be linked with Dinard's place of work, a private archaeological museum.  The museum caretaker, an Englishman named Marlin, has disappeared.  Has he simply absconded, believing he was being accused of theft, or was he actually involved in the murder?  Has he been murdered himself?

The slain laughing girl was found in the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Coggs, Adelaide's grasping landlords from Hell (this couple is memorably portrayed).  Do they know more than they admit?

apparently Philo passed on this case
The detection is done by neither Dinard nor Sayre, but rather by the police (imagine!), most particularly Addison Alby, Assistant District Attorney.  Alby, a smart fellow and no brute (rather in contrast with Inspector Higgins), is under pressure to arrest Dinard, but he resists, clearly because he has strong reservations about Dinard's guilt.  Dinard says he is being set up by the real murderer. But why would that be?

There's a nice bit when Sheridan Dinard introduces himself to Assistant D. A. Alby (it's pleasing to think these characters all inhabit the same universe!):

"I had the pleasure of meeting you once, Mr. Philo Vance's, with Mr. Markham."

There's also help from young Joey Timmott, a hotel bellhop with ambitions to become a detective.  He's a nicely done character.

The police are convincingly portrayed too (there's even a policewoman).

All in all, A Girl Died Laughing is, I would say, a book that should please fans of Golden Age mystery, particularly those who like the Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine and Mignon Eberhart.  You can see influences from all these authors, I think.

a note from Paradise
Now, as mentioned above, my copy of this book has a full page inscription from the author, where she explains that she is donating this copy to the Exiled Writers Committee of the League of American Writers, to become part of its collection of Americana.

The League was formed in 1935, with the stated purpose of fostering "a truly democratic culture."  The Exiled Writers Committee succored persecuted anti-fascist writers in Europe.

Apparently the League was a Communist Front group--though of course that doesn't mean that given individual members actually were Communists (in Paradise's case, by the early 1960s at least, she had become critical of the Soviet Union). 

"This book comes unpretentiously into the collection, just to be going along," writes Viola Paradise modestly.  "And in the hope that some one will find a few hours' diversion in its pages."

Someone has, Miss Paradise.  I thank you!


  1. I wonder if she knew W.H. Wright or if her sly allusion to Vance and Markham was just a fan's homage. I would have laughed out loud if I came across that line in any book. Excellent!

    The character names are priceless. Viola was kind of hooked on the A vowel sounds, wasn't she?

    I also love that surreal artwork on the DJ. Any artist credit for that? It almost looks like its a hand colored or altered photograph.

  2. I always get a kick out of a reference by one fictional character to another fictional character.

  3. Another wonderful sounding read Curt - not an easy one to get I would imagine but it does sound like fun and that kind of literary cross-pollination is always amusing if its done with a bit of humour. I don't think there is any doubt that the 'League of American Writers' was a Communist-funded organisation and the stated aims were certainly very laudable.


  4. Thanks everyone for the comments. Yeah, I did get a kcik out of the unexpected Philo Vance reference and I love the dust jacket too.

    Peggy, good luck! I will see if there's any chance of reprinting.