Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Digging Deep into the Mysteries of Character and Place: The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

"There's no gas in the mine, they tell us," Billy keened over his empty glass. "Do you remember them telling us that in 1938, was it?  They're as pure as the mountain air.  And sure the graveyard's swimming with the pieces."  His voice rose like an evangelist's. "Their souls were exploded to heaven."

                                                             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."

I rib Boucher a bit for this last statement (matched by the Chicago Sun, which declared that Davis in her narration "never once betrays herself with a 'feminine' accent"), but in my estimation he was keenly perceptive in his praise of The Clay Hand, though this praise may have fallen rather on deaf ears at the time. While the novel also was lauded, several decades later, by Jon L. Breen, it was never reprinted again for half a century, when Open Road Media produced it, along with Davis' other crime novels, as an eBook, not too long before Davis' death this month, at the venerable age of 98.

Davis' third novel, A Gentle Murderer
(1951), was also part of the
Bantam 1952 reprint series
Readers familiar with Sarah Weinman's writing on mid-century women "domestic suspense" authors (much blogged about here lately) will know that Weinman laments the comparative neglect over the last several decades of these writers. While big presses certainly have been guilty of this neglect, smaller presses since the 1980s in my view have served some of these authors, such as Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, well.

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.


  1. Thank you very much for this piece: I really must try to track down some of the works of this author.

    1. Thanks! All her crime books are available as eBooks now.

  2. Obviously, one hates to admit this sort of thing out loud (sic) but I have a nagging suspicion that I have not read anything by Davis (or it was so long ago that it makes no difference) - but this one sounds like a keeper, so thanks Curt.

    1. I think she will be included in the collections Sarah Weinman is editing for Library of America, so we will be hearing more about her, I'm sure!

  3. I hope this essay will spark a real interest in her work whether it be the novels or her numerous short stories, luckily collected in several volumes. I see that Keishon is already reading TOWN OF MASKS. Hope there will be a review over at his (her?) blog sometime soon. I've been reading Davis' early novels on and off for the past two years and am impressed with each one. Yet to touch anything in her later period. I've read some good things about the Mrs. Norris books (A GENTLEMAN CLALED is the one I really want to find and read) and her other series character Julie Hayes. A reporter? I may be wrong. Catholicism plays an important part in her later books, too as is hinted at in A GENTLE MURDERER.

    1. John, yes, that's a good point about the Catholicism, it's in this one, but more so in A Gentle Murderer. I have more to read by her, she went off into some new directions after the first four.