Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Murder by Numbers: Death's Old Sweet Song (1946), by Jonathan Stagge

What's the use of going over this again?...I know them.  I've gone around with them.  Whatever their problems or poses or frustrations, they are ordinary, rational people.  And I don't believe in those homicidal maniacs you read about who behave like normal citizens for twenty-three hours a day and then run amok with foaming fangs for a sixty-minute orgy of madness.  

                                                       --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:

Six for the SIX PROUD WALKERS
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 FearsSong 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.

21 comments:

  1. I'm glad that these detective novels are finally getting reprinted and look forward to reading some of the more obscurer titles by these writers, but Death's Old Sweet Song is undeserving of its reputation. It's the only one I read under the Jonathan Stagge name and never returned to the series after it. Without question one of the worst and least inspired of all the nursery rhyme mysteries.

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    1. Oh, gosh, I totally disagree with you here. Did you review this on your blog? I know you didn't like Murder at Cambridge, although that seemed partly motivated by the Popular Library cover!

      I liked this one a lot even though there's definite implausibility, as with The Bishop Murder Case. Don't want to say too much more, spoilers. This is one of my favorites in the series, along with Death and The Dear Girls, The Scarlet Circle and Murder or Mercy?

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    2. On the reprints I've noticed that MP is so far leaving out some of the most obscure ones, I hope they rectify that. I've got a review of Cottage Sinister coming soon, I hope. It was interesting to compare the writing of that one with Death's Sweet Old Song.

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    3. "Did you review this on your blog?"

      I'm afraid not. I read it years before I began to blog and, therefore, can't give you detailed notes, but remember being thoroughly unimpressed with the overall plot. That's why I pushed Jonathan Stagge down my wish list.

      I hope they should consider reprinting S.S. Murder. A must-read for readers who love shipboard mysteries consisting entirely of letters.

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    4. Yes, they are doing that one, it’s out already.

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    5. I agree with TomCat. I read the book last year, and, like him, found it underwhelming: thin plot, weak solution. Disappointing, after years of hearing how good it was! Not in the same class as the Puzzles for Fools and Players, or Death and the Maiden.

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    6. Well, speaking for myself, I missed the significance of, well, you know, even though I knew there had to be something about it! I hope that's clear! ;) Personally I liked the somewhat streamlined nature of the book, some of the 30s ones for me get a little bogged down in narrative and collation. Although I agree on Death and the Maiden! Just sorry the title is so overused!

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    7. I was disappointed with A Puzzle for Fools, actually, my favorite PQ books come later. I don't think they quite settled down to what they were doing with the series for a bit (or Hugh, I should say).

      I suppose you know Michael Joseph published both the Stagges and the Gladys Mitchells? I wish Hugh had kept the series going.

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    8. Since I got Tomcat and NickF against me, I'm going to have to bring out the big guns: Elizabeth Bowen and Anthony Boucher. "Jonathan Stagge once more at his comic and gruesome best," said Elizabeth Bowen of the novel. "Well-sketched background and people and some pretty misdirections," said Anthony Boucher, though adding however that "Dr. Westlake's detection is all but non-existent." I don't know I thought Dawn provided her usual inspiration!

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    9. Well, I have to disagree with the big guns. Heretical, I know, but Death's Old Sweet Song simply did not live up to its reputation and don't think the Quentin Collective is done any favors by presenting it as one of their best mystery novels.

      My two favorite Quentin mysteries are Death and the Maiden and Black Widow. I'm especially fond of Black Widow, because not only is it a well written and plotted detective story, but a great crossover pitting Lt. Trant, from Death and the Maiden, against Peter Duluth!

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    10. I just can't agree with your vehemence against this one. I think I would put Death and the Dear Girls at the top (rereading now) of the Stagge heap, but Song, Scarlet Circle and Murder or Mercy? are all great favorites with me too. Aside from the mystery most all the books have that prized quality: sheer readability.They write books which I almost never find myself tempted to put down. The Quentin Collective will survive this blog piece and prosper, of that I feel confident.

      I reviewed Black Widow, book and film, here and Death for Dear Clara which immediately preceded Death and the Maiden. As I said below, everyone seems to agree on that one, anyway!

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    11. I haven't read Death and the Dear Girls, Scarlet Circle, or Murder or Mercy? - things to look forward to! First: catch your Stagge!

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    12. Hope you like, this one turned out to be controversial. 20 comments!

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    13. Mysterious Press doesn't seem to be reprinting some of the titles, could it be because they don't have copies have them? I don't know.

      Scarlet Circle, someone is asking $200 for a paperback ed. Three copies of Murder by Prescription, 175-600 dollars! 300 and 750 for The Dogs Do Bark.

      Death's Old Sweet Song actually is the most available title, having had a book club edition in the US.

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  2. I, too, liked Death's Old Sweet Song. It was the first Stagge I read, and I went looking for the rest. On another note, Anthea Fraser wrote an English police detective series, and most of the titles in the series are taking from the verses of Green Grow the Rushes-O.

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    1. I didn't know that! If it hadn't been for that REM song from the Eighties I might not have ever heard of it.

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  3. This was also the first Stagge I read--and one of the first books I reviewed when I started blogging. I hadn't really gotten into the rhythm of blogging/reviewing yet, so I'm afraid it got less attention than it should have. I enjoyed it and should really reread it so I can give it a better review.

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    1. I try to check for prior reviews before I do one and I didn't see yours, Bev, sorry! I was going to do these in order but John Norris reviewed the first two and I mostly agreed with him so I decided to go on to the later ones. And our fedora'd friend Sergio reviewed Turn of the Table. I'm going to be doing Death and the Dear Girls next, I think.

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  4. As a matter of fact I finished this one myself only a few days ago and while I didn't have as low an opinion of it as TomCat or Nick I found it to be easily solved and nothing setting it apart from other mysteries except perhaps the child murders. I gave it only as a B. It was my first Stagge, though I've read several Patrick Quentins and prefer them.

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  5. Hamstrung here, cause trying to avoid spoilers, but I can't say I found it easily solved, because I didn't solve it. I missed the significance of a couple of key things, which I'm guessing you naysayers must have caught. I knew one thing had to be significant, but I actually still didn't get that right. I thought it was very nicely done.

    But at least it will be out soon for people to divide for themselves. I'm going to do a piece soon on Death and the Dear Girls, another Stagge I like particularly. I was going to do them in sequence but John Norris has such good reviews of the first two, I went to to the later ones. Of course I already reviewed Three Fears and Scarlet Circle a while back.

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  6. I should mention this was another instance of the twist ending which the authors often employed, where they build up the solution against X and then it turns out to be Y. I thought a good job was done with that here.

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