Monday, September 14, 2015

Booked: The Book of the Crime (1951), by Elizabeth Daly

Elizabeth Daly's late-blooming but successful mystery-writing career was launched in 1940, when the author was past sixty, and ended, sixteen novels later, in 1951, when she was 73.  Daly lived for sixteen more years, passing away in 1967, so why she stopped writing mysteries I have no idea. Personally, I would have liked some more books from her, but at least she retired on a comparatively high note, with The Book of the Crime.

As I mentioned in my review of Daly's excellent Night Walk (1947), many of the author's detective novels have something of a minimalist feel, much in contrast with many modern mysteries, being rather short and sparely, though very pleasingly, written.  The Book of the Crime is even more minimalist than usual with Daly, by my estimate being around 45, 000 words, barely more than the length of a long novella.  It is set in April 1950 and concerns the travails of a young wife, Rena Austin, married for just a year to a lame war hero husband (wound to the leg), recently widowed when he met Rena.

This being a Daly novel, the husband, Gray Austin, recently inherited from a deceased uncle one of those New York brownstone row houses, wherein he resides in idleness, along with Rena; his siblings, brother Jerome and sister Hildreth (love that name); Irish housekeeper Norah Callahan; and Boston terrier Aby.

One feels that, along with Daly's bibliophile detective, Henry Gamadge, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe might be just around the corner.  This old New York atmosphere, surely already anachronistic in 1951, is a huge part of the pleasure of the Daly mysteries, as noted by one of Daly's biggest fans, Agatha Christie (whose birthday is tomorrow, by the way--more on that soon).

Out taking Aby for a walk, Rena reflects that her quickie marriage to Gray Austin was rash indeed. Her husband has turned into a melancholy and uncommunicative living companion, while her siblings-in-law are snide and condescending and Norah surly and saucy.  When, after returning from the walk with Aby, Rena has an altercation with her husband concerning a certain book in the house, she flees from the house in fear, determined never to return.

Happily, Rena once made the acquaintance of Henry Gamadge, bibliophile and amateur sleuth, and she is able to call on him to help get her out of this pickle.  We once again get glimpses of the Gamadge menage, now including, besides butler Theodore, wife Clara, two young children and a dog and cat, all of whom get along perfectly harmoniously (another part of the escapist pleasure of the Daly tales).

There is a murder, well into the story, of a character the reader never meets while he is among the living, so the emotional impact of this event is distant.  Rather, we are concerned to see that Rena gets extricated from her ill-advised marriage.  But with Gamadge on her side, we can anticipate a happy ending for the nice young woman.

Though more simply plotted than many of the earlier Dalys, The Book of the Crime has a clearly articulated mystery and all the nostalgic charm of vintage Daly.  It is surely a book that all the author's fans will enjoy. The clever last line, the very last line of the Henry Gamadge saga, is particularly to be treasured.  As I discussed in a recent blog post, Daly was not only admired by Agatha Christie, but by Eudora Welty as well.  You scarcely need more recommendation than that, but I very much like Daly too.

The Book of the Crime will be reissued next year, I believe, by Felony & Mayhem, one of the finest vintage mystery presses.  Enjoy!


  1. Thanks for the review chum - my one encounter with Daly so far was not a success but am always happyt to try again!

    1. Which one did you read, Sergio? So far you haven't been overawed with Daly, Marsh and Wentworth--am I detective a pattern here? ;)

  2. Well, I have read everything by the 3 other queens of crime, and like them a lot, so I feel my GAD fan credentials are OK! The Daly I read was NOTHING CAN RESCUE ME, which is pretty mediocre by any standard, wouldn't you agree? But it seems to me that a lot of people who like her as well as Wentworth and Marsh tend to be die-hard lovers of the 'cozy' which I am certainly not. And they do seem to fulfil a vision of Englishness that is particularly appealing to people who don't actually live here ...

    1. I definitely think the atmosphere is a big part of it with Wentworth and Daly. And, interestingly, Christie, very English, really liked Daly. Don't know whether she ever commented about Wentworth, that would be fascinating!

  3. I read a few of these some years ago, and then reread one recently and really liked it. I must give this one a go.