Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Book of the Dead by Elizabeth Daly

published 1944  chapter 9



While she spoke Gamadge absorbed first impressions: a quiet woman – she sat motionless, her hands crossed on the handbag in her lap. A conventional woman – she could not have had many hours on the surfaces of the earth since receiving the sudden news that she was a widow, but she had already acquired the outward signs of mourning; not, of course, her black suit and hat, her black shoes, but her fine black stockings and short black-bordered veil. A woman of perhaps forty, who was still handsome – very handsome, with a thin, unlined, unpainted face, dark hair too tightly waved, dark eyes, a thin mouth, a slightly upturned nose and a long upper lip. She had the kind of face that is closed against the world; what, he wondered, goes on behind those faces? Nothing? Or a coil of secret, pullulating thoughts?



observations: There’s been a resurgence of interest in Elizabeth Daly, and with good reason (and of course, she has been featured at Margot Kinberg’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog). She was an American crime writer, producing most of her books in the 1940s, and is always described as one of Agatha Christie’s favourites. You can see why – this particular book has a clever plotline that you can easily imagine in a Christie book (can’t say more for fear of spoilers). Her series detective was Henry Gamadge, an expert in rare books, and many of the stories have books in the title (which means you can mix them up – The Book of the Dead is of course quite different from The Book of the Crime).

Gamadge takes a young woman, new to New York, out to eat, and she observes the local hats:
“I have too many flowers in my hat!”

“Is three too many?” Gamadge looked the “hat” which consisted of the three flowers and – so far as he could judge – nothing else.

“They only have one.”

“Why any?”

“Just to show they’re not at home!”

This sounds like the hat from George Eastman House used for another crime story last year…. 



Gamadge also mentions that his dentist’s assistant looks like an Ouled Nail – apparently this was an Algerian mountain tribe, and the women were stereotyped - with the worst kind of orientalism and on not much grounds - as highly-painted exotic dancing girls. The implication seems to be that the dental assistant is very much made-up and decorated.

Much of the book is set in wartime New York, and is splendidly done: the uncertain atmosphere, the old dark buildings in obscure corners, the idea of a weird rehab facility… this is a very intriguing book indeed, and one that kept me guessing.

Links on the blog: Agatha Christie doesn’t seem to have produced a murder story in 1944, but she did publish this, one of her Mary Westmacott books. Mourning has featured before: in a Byron poem (maybe), in Les Mis, in Bring up the Bodies – and here we mention the Chekhov heroine who was in mourning for her life.

The picture is of Mildred Crooks of Brisbane and is from the State Library of Queensland.

1 comment:

  1. Moira - Thanks for the kind mention :-). And I'm glad too that there is a renewed interest in Daly's work. She had talent and it's easy to see why Christie admired her. You've picked up beautifully I think on the humour in the series, and there are some good plots too. Glad you enjoyed this one.

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