Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Greenacres is the Place to Flee: Give Me Death (1934), by Isabel Briggs Myers

A droll title for a dead-sober book, but I was amused when I read in Isabel Briggs Myers' Give Me Death that the mansion of that doom-bedeviled family, the Darneils, is named Greenacres (also the title of a popular cornpone American sitcom from the 1960s, starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert).  To extend the parallel further, the Darneils are even an ancestrally southern family (the men always marry southern belles, don't you know).

I've had a copy of this book for some time, but was finally prompted to actually read it by John Norris' rave review of the first of Myers' two detective novels, Murder Yet to Come

One contemporary review declared of Give Me Death that the novel was "notable not only for its tense situations and its admirable character drawing, but also for a fine literary quality that sets it apart from all but the very best examples of recent mystery fiction."

I don't believe I'd go quite that far, but Give Me Death has exceptional virtues--as well as one notable failing, I would say, at least for modern readers.

the second detective novel of Isabel Briggs Myers
As alluded to above, Give Me Death concerns a series of tragic deaths that befall the the Darneils, a proud, distinguished family of southern heritage, though they have lived for generations now in New York (presumably since the ahem! War Between the States), where the menfolk are involved in the banking biz.

First there's one death, then two, then three, all suicides--OR ARE THEY???--ostensibly motivated by the discovery of some dark secret.  Will lovely Andrea Darneil, engaged to be married when the tragedies commenced, be the next to die?!

A family friend, the playwright Peter Jerningham (he solved Myers' last murder story, don't you know), is on the case, along with his faithful Watson (his male secretary); yet, a la S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, he solves it only after most of the family is wiped out, sadly for the Darneils.

Still, to be fair to "Jerry," as he is called, the ingenious convolutions in the last quarter of the novel are spectacularly confounding to reader-sleuths.  I myself certainly didn't see the final resolution coming!  For mystery fans who like most of all to be surprised (and fairly), this is good vintage stuff indeed.

In addition to pulling off some Christie-Carr level slight of hand here, Myers does a good job with the Holmes-Watson sleuthing formula.  Her more immediate pattern may be that of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance and Van, but, in my opinion, Myers is much more successful than Van Dine at creating lifelike characters (not to mention she's a far trickier plotter).

However, there is a flaw in this fine fabric of mystery.
Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980)

The horrifying secret, when it's revealed three-quarters of the way through the book, is apt to produce in the modern reader, I suspect, more irritation with than sympathy for the Darneil family.

Indeed, after learning the secret and having witnessed the ludicrously over-the-top, histrionic reactions of the family members to it, one would have to be forgiven for thinking a better title for the novel might have been Too Stupid to Live.

For my part, I was about ready to give up on the book at that point.  But the last quarter of Give Me Death is a honey of an extended coda that atones for the risible Darneil uproar over the dread secret.

For more on Isabel Briggs Myers (she of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), see The Story of Isabel Briggs Myers.  In addition to her more famous accomplishments in the field of psychology, Myers clearly was a dab hand at fictional detection.

1 comment:

  1. The blurb on the jacket, near the bottom, about the $7500 mystery detective prize, reminds me -- Briggs Myers's first book is the book that took the prize money away from Ellery Queen's first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, and forced Queen to look elsewhere for publication.