McDougal "Mac" Duff, ex-history professor-cum-brain for hire, is "likely to think poorly of people who say ‘Lay on, Mac Duff’ to him. He says an intelligent person thinks of it, and realizes it’s been said, and passes up the chance. But a dumbbell is so pleased with his own cleverness, he always says it.” John Joseph "JJ" Jones, newspaper reporter-cum-Duff's legman, conveys this advice to the young woman he's falling in love with—Elizabeth "Bessie" Gibbon, who fears her ruthless uncle, Charles Cathcart, is a murderer.
There you have it, the setup for Charlotte Armstrong's first of many novels, Lay On, Mac Duff. The plot's architecture seems simple and intriguing, with the small cast of suspects diminishing in the first half when two of its members are murdered. A takeoff on Christie's And Then There Were None, boiling down quickly until only three plausible suspects remained. Then, in the second half, I found the solution needlessly complicated--such evidence as who arrived on a scene first and how did he or she get there, and when was a thermostat turned off and how many minutes elapsed between phone calls or before this person appeared or left or arrived or had the means to do this or that surreptitiously and on and on and on. Unable to follow the intensely meticulous conversations when the presumed good guys are hashing out these seemingly trivial details, I found myself skipping entire pages, wanting to get to something conclusive, especially when it became fairly obvious who'd been doing the murders. I might have finally given up were it not for my hope Armstrong would spring a surprise villain a la Christie's favorite device of unmasking someone we are led to believe all along is someone else. The other option would be someone--Mac Duff presumably--solving the crimes by cerebral procedural, i.e. methodically sorting thru a mess of complicated threads and details and notions. Long explanation short: No surprises in Lay On, Mac Duff.
I can't say I wasn't warned. Bitter Tea & Mystery's Tracy K, whose reviews of two later Armstrong novels persuaded me to give these novels a try, did mention the complicated plots. Tracy liked the writing and the characters, and so did I in the 1942 mystery that launched Armstrong's successful writing career (she won a best-novel Edgar Award fifteen years later for A Dram of Poison.) Not inclined right now to read another of her works, but if I get the itch later it will be because of the writing and the characters.
Lay On, Mac Duff is the first-person narrative of Bessie Gibbon, 19, who's just left her small upstate New York hometown where she was raised by her mother and Methodist minister father. Both are dead, the mother most recently, and Bessie hopes to find a job in New York City while staying with the wealthy uncle, whom she's not met. Arriving by train in the evening, she finds Uncle Charles and three business associates playing a cutthroat game of Parcheesi. The uncle loses, something that rarely happens, and he is clearly annoyed. That night, one of the players is shot to death in his home. As another more famous cerebral fictional detective loves to say, the real game "is afoot."
First to enter the presumed good guys' side is JJ Jones, a newspaper reporter who immediately begins a heavy flirtation with Bessie when he arrives at the house to interview anyone who might might have anything to say about the murder. Bessie is more than flattered by the attention, and, before I can think Jack be quick, the two share a deep mutual infatuation. When it's clear Bessie thinks it's likely her uncle committed the murder, persuading JJ to share her suspicion, the intrepid reporter, who seems to have no deadline for filing a story, suggests consulting his former history professor, Mac Duff. After a second Parcheesi player is stabbed to death in his home, Bessie's 25-year-old beautiful aunt, Lina, hires Duff to eliminate the uncle as a suspect. Now the game really is afoot. Lina herself is a suspect, I should note, because Charles had "bought" her after besting her father in a business deal. The old man is now in a nursing home, and it's apparent to Bessie that Lina is not at all happy in her marriage.
All eyes are on Duff when he arrives and sets up shop at the Cathcart mansion. He wears no deerstalker cap, nor smokes a pipe or anything else. He doesn't apply Sherlockian ratiocination to learn volumes of information from looking, say, at the label of jacket or the ring mark on a finger. He just sits, asks an occasional question, and listens. Any legwork needing to be done JJ does voluntarily. Either he's been fired offstage from his day job, or soon will be if he doesn't call the city desk at least by book's end, or...uh oh, maybe isn't really a reporter after all! But Bessie likes him, so we do too, because she is one smart, albeit uneducated, cookie. Here, as an example of her perspicacity, is her take on Mac Duff:
MacDougal Duff was waiting in the drawing room, and pretty soon we went in there. He was a tall leanish man with a long face and a long-lipped mouth and a long bony hand that had warm life in it for all its gauntness...he had a melancholy face, seamed and lined as if he had been through a lot, and yet the lines were lightly etched as if for a long time some peacefulness of spirit had been working to erase them. I couldn’t tell how old he was, but like my uncle he knew too much to be young.
Pretty perspicacious, I must admit. My goodness, she's smart enough and she's articulate enough, knows enough big words...why, she could be a novelist!! Here she is comparing Duff with her uncle:
The great difference between him and my uncle was just what made them seem most alike. That sounds crazy, but it was as if two extremes, two opposites, were so far from each other that they met again around at the back of the circle. Uncle Charles was tough, hard, armored with experience. He was a seasoned fighter, a veteran disillusioned and dangerous. Mac Duff had been through the wars, too, but for him the battle was over. He was marked with wisdom but also with weariness and some sadness. And there was this quietude about him, this deep resignation, which was his power, so like my uncle’s and so different...they were both powerful men. But I knew Mac Duff had the only kind of strength against which my uncle’s strength would have no purchase.
And this (and no more, or you'll think I'm sweet on the guy, too): "He had one of the sweetest smiles I’ve ever seen" she says, not me! "It lightened his sad face so wonderfully, offered such a shy affection, revealed behind the tired mask someone so eternally young, so incorrigibly hopeful for the best in us, that I fell for him then and there." One wonders if she shared this sentiment with JJ. One hopes she's too smart to do this, but there are two more books in the Mac Duff series, perhaps containing clues to this potential trinity. Presuming JJ's not the killer Mac Duff nails for the murders in this debut outing.
One feature I especially liked about
Armstrong's narrative style is her close-up focus on the body language, the nuances of people she observes.
"Some people," she tells us, "have a way of walking
away from you with their consciousness of your still being there
somehow apparent in their spines, in the turn of their necks. But
when my uncle walked away you felt dropped and forgotten." I'd
never noticed something like that myself, but when I read this I knew
precisely what she meant.
And this. I don't know to whom she refers, but it's typical of her predatory eye: "He nodded, still with that listening angle to his neck."
This: "I could feel his bewilderment in the very limpness of his fingers."
If Bessie's in the other two books, she had better not still be looking for work. She should at least have won a literary award by then. Here's one last quote, taken during one of Duff's sessions with the potential murderers:
I saw Lina turn and scrutinize Guy Maxon with a long deep look as if she’d read him inside and out. I saw my uncle pretend not to watch Hugh and Hugh pretend not to watch my uncle. I felt the criss-crossing of tensions weave and tighten while Duff sat in the middle and soaked up his own impressions of all the flying wordless messages. Hugh’s to me, meaning, “I haven’t the right to ask you for faith in me, but have you got it?” Maxon’s to Lina, meaning, “If I knew what you were looking for, I’d be that thing. What is it?...What was [Duff] thinking? What was he feeling? He wasn’t. Not for himself. But we were feeling, and that was the point. The room was full of feelings for all we sat so civilized and sipped our drinks. It was our feelings that mattered, I remembered. And I knew what Duff was watching and listening to.
And I do too heh heh heh heh heh.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]