Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Avant le deluge: No Light Came On (1942), by Alice Campbell

On the front flap of its drab wartime jacket, rendered in traffic signal shades of red and yellow, for No Light Came On (1942), Alice Campbell's thirteenth crime novel in fourteen years, the Collins Crime Club stated nostalgically that the crime novel was "set in a Paris that it is pleasant to remember--the happy Paris of fashionable hotels, smart shops and chic well-dressed women."  Before the bloody Nazis came and rampaged, in other words!

Oh, yes, there are also four murders--though Collins didn't think to mention that little spot of unpleasantness to its weary, war-ridden readers.  The Americans who published the book three years later in 1945, during the dying days of the conflagration, sure did mention those murders, however, in the process stressing not the swell sights of Gay peacetime Paree, but rather "excitement, suspense and thrills," "terrifying incident" and a "swift-moving nightmare of terror."  

Oh, those excitable Americans!  Of course Alice Campbell herself was an American by birth, although she lived for the majority of her life in England and even spent a couple of years in Paris herself, where she married, after a whirlwind romance of three months, and gave birth to her first child. (The exact breakdown, for those who are interested, is Atlanta, 1887-1906, New York, 1906-1913, Paris, 1913-1914, various locales in England, 1914-1955.)

Nothing better illustrates the contradictory nature of the so-called vintage "cozy" mystery.  Just what makes these books cozy, ostensibly?  Sure, we know the heroine will survive the tale (nowadays, since the twin terrors of Game of Thrones and Sarah Phelps, you can never be sure of even that), perhaps even herself getting a nice boyfriend along the way.  So there is that, and that's no small thing in life, to be sure.  But let's take a closer look at Alice Campbell's No Light Came On, its beleaguered American heroine, Gay Ripley, and the "nightmare of terror" which she has to endure along the way to her happily ever after ending.

Our heroine, Gay Ripley, spends some time here, at the Palais de Justice complex, when she
 comes under suspicion of the French police in the murder in Paris of her cousin Lou Rentrew.
The Palais would also see the trials, after World War Two, of Marshall Petain and Pierre Laval.

Gay, a buyer for a New York antique firm, arrives on business in prewar Paris, where she encounters her wealthy, fifty-something cousin from the Midwest, Lou Rentrew, who pretentiously prefers to go by the name "Marise."  (Red-haired Gay herself hails originally from Nashville, Tennessee, in case you ever doubted that this character is somewhat based on the blonde native southern author herself.)  

Lou, fairly recently widowed, has been living in Paris for some time now and what do all middle-aged wealthy American widows like to do in Paris?  Why, get themselves tangled up with attractive gigolo types, of course!  Lou's latest pash in this line is Maurice de Chabenil, a handsome young Frenchman who is an heir to a title but no fortune.  AC (Alice Campbell, not Agatha Christie) is quite frank about Raoul's sexual appeal to women, but he's also clearly a rotter, if a charming one.  You can never tell with those impoverished continental European aristocrats!

What else is going on in Lou's life?  Well, she seems to have surrounded herself with a motley lot of servants: keyhole-listening butler/chauffeur Manx, temperamental cook Hortense, and recently sacked maid Alixe.  There's also Lou's enigmatic refugee Hungarian seamstress, Madame Estrella, and the seamstress' questionable doctor brother by the name of Boros, and then there's the American and English lot: Lou's gay--i.e., "not the marrying kind"--antique dealer brother-in-law, Horace Rentrew; Geoffrey Macadam and his wife Catherine, the lead characters from AC's novel Spiderweb, aka Murder in Paris a dozen years earlier); and sullen Miles Dorsey, a young English lawyer in Geoffrey's firm.  You can probably guess the love interest for Gay here, although even his motivations are suspect.  Just who can a gal trust in Paris. anyway?

Gay knows there's a strange man in her room
--but the light won't come on!

The truth is, this is a very seedy lot of characters, by and large, even if there are smart shops and fashionable hotels.  I think Anglo-American authors felt more emboldened to portray people so nastily (or realistically?) when they used French settings--no offense, France--because they knew their readers could tell themselves, thank goodness things aren't like that in the good old US of A or glorious UK, as the case may have been.  It's just those wicked frogs and wogs, don't you know!  Of course Americans and Englishmen/women sure loved to read about these nefarious doings, or even see for themselves what it was like by visiting when they could.  And needless to say their own countries were hardly babes in the wicked world.

Anyway, poor, gigolo-loving Lou soon gets done in at the posh nursing home where she has checked herself in (a heart condition, you see), oddly recalling Ngaio Marsh's much later detective novel Grave  Mistake (1978).  And then Lou's fabulous Marie Antoinette necklace gets stolen!  Gay herself gets chloroformed in her bed and tortured with hot coals while dressed only in her high-heels, brassiere and step ins.  But, Gay, plucky girl, gets back in her clothes and keeps snooping (she narrates the story by the way), until finally the shocking truth comes out.

This is a pretty long story at about 85,000 words by my count, but by no means AC's longest.  There is lots of complication, plots and counterplots, and I found it quite enjoyable.  It definitely feels in the Marie Belloc Lowndes, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart vein, though happily, for me anyway, the romance element is quite tamped down compared to Eberhart.  Gay is an enjoyable heroine who stands up for herself, in contrast with Eberhart's frequently fretting wet noodles, although convention requires that Gay be gobsmacked by the final revelations.  No know-all Poirot-style drawing room lectures for Gay, in other words, who manages to get herself near fatally coshed in the penultimate chapter.  Fortunately this gal is more resilient than Philip Marlowe!

I'd say this is what was deemed a "women's mystery, "yet I enjoy Humdrums John Rhode and Freeman Crofts and Hard-Boileds Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and I liked No Light Came On too.  There's actually some clever stuff here involving poisoning (Benzedrine, the pick-me-up drug which Richard Webb of Patrick Quentin fame helped market in his day job as a pharmaceutical executive) and altogether it's harder-hitting than anyone reading and relying on that Collins plot summary (which also stupidly spoils part of the plot) might ever have expected.

This was AC's first Paris/Riviera-set mystery in seven years and also her last.  Of the seven mysteries she published between 1928 and 1935, five were set in France: Juggernaut (1928), Spiderweb (1930), The Click of the Gate (1932, with Tommy Rostetter), Desire to Kill (1934, with Tommy Rostetter) and Keep Away from Water! (1935).  Presumably for these books she drew on her knowledge of France in its prewar days--not pre-WW2 but pre-WW1.  After the horrors of Second World War in France, AC evidently found she couldn't credibly go back there again, even in memory.  The France of her past was irrevocably gone and could not be conjured back again by a crime writer.

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