Friday, October 20, 2017
Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE FRIGHTENED STIFF (1942) by Kelley Roos
Yet again I cannot remember who recommended this book to me, but whoever you are/were, THANK YOU! Husband and wife detecting teams aren't all that prolific in the annals of vintage mystery fiction though there are a few (besides Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, my stand-out favorites are the Jane and Dagobert Brown books by Delano Ames and the Mr. and Mrs. North books by Francis and Richard Lockridge) so when I stumble across a 'new' Mr. and Mrs. Detecting Duo, I am thrilled. Haila and Jeff Troy now join my list of favorite marital sleuthing teams.
Husband and wife authors Audrey and William Roos aka Kelley Roos, are not as talented as Christie or Delano Ames , but they seem quite on par with the Lockridges and that's quite good enough for me. Based on THE FRIGHTENED STIFF, I'll definitely be looking for the rest of the books in the series.
Apparently the Kelley Roos combo is another of those authors whose books mysteriously vanished from sight over time. But then Rue Morgue Press stepped up and re-published some of the titles a few years ago and VOILA!
THE FRIGHTENED STIFF should especially resonate with readers who lived in New York and have memories of the city of once upon a time. (I grew up there in the 40's and 50's and to me, Manhattan was a fabulous theme park.) Even if you don't have the actual memories, you will probably have seen movies set in the city of that time so you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about. There was a neighborhood feel to the city then but also a sense that adventure was just around the corner. And nowhere in the city was adventure more likely to happen than in Greenwich Village, the artistic enclave of eccentrics which still, to this day, carries its own unique cachet.
The pleasure of being young marrieds moving into an atmospheric basement apartment on a great street in The Village is dampened somewhat by the unpleasantness of a dead man in the garden out back. But there's always something - right? The zest of living in the city of eight million stories is captured wonderfully by the authors - even if this particular story is pretty much confined to one building and its surrounding streets. A second dead body would have added more 'oomph' to the plot and considering the eventual solution and explanation of plot mechanics, I'm surprised there wasn't one, but still I enjoyed what the authors did with this cozy NYC mystery of the early 1940's.
When the aforementioned body is spied by a neighbor from a second floor window, the cops are called in and as they begin tramping in and out of their apartment, Jeff and Haila Troy are put in a difficult position. They have to explain that though the victim is lying nude in their garden, the body literally stripped of any identification - they have no idea who he is. But it turns out (once Haila gets a closer look) that the corpse is the same guy they'd noticed acting suspiciously the night before at a neighborhood restaurant.
It also turns out that Haila had overheard the dead man's half of a strange phone conversation. He was making a midnight assignation to meet someone in, of all places, their new apartment. (The Troys had not been expected to move in until a week later so their sudden appearance had obviously upset some nefarious plan.) Then Jeff had almost gotten into an altercation with the guy who'd turned belligerent. But both Troys assumed he'd just been drunk.
Next thing you know, the same shady character winds up dead in their garden. Naturally, the cops suspect the Troys of knowing more than they're telling. So to keep from being arrested for the crime, Jeff decides to solve it. I mean, wouldn't you?
The building is chock full of quirky folk. All seem uneasy, but then having a dead man show up in the building's garden might make anyone uneasy. Especially since it's obvious that the killer has to be one of them.
1) An old friend of Haila's (who now doesn't seem quite so friendly) and her handsome hubby who if he isn't guilty of anything, sure acts like it.
2) Two sisters, one of whom is sickly and spends most of the day in bed (when she isn't staring white faced and spooky out the window) while the other one assiduously mans the entrance to their apartment fending off even the police who want to chat.
3) A coquettish restaurateur with a watchful eye, a secret and a surly brother.
4) A guy masquerading as an art expert.
5) The landlord who isn't above acting suspiciously himself.
6) And last but not least, the dead man who, unknown to Jeff and Haila, had also lived in the building - top floor rear.
Most of the action takes place within the confines of the building, often in the shadowy hallways where odd noises and surreptitious footsteps make Haila very uneasy as well, not to mention that the landlord keeps dragging his feet about getting them a new lock for the busted in front door. (The cops having been a bit too enthusiastic.) Also not to mention that when Haila learns that the dead man was killed inside their apartment in their bathtub (!), she refuses to bathe and immediately wants to abandon their lease and get the hell out. Sort of the same reaction I'd have.
Noises, bumps in the night and the claustrophobic atmosphere of a West Village brownstone which had once been a speakeasy work very well to enhance the logistics of a most engaging whodunit. Likable and amusing main characters, breezy dialogue and a puzzling mystery make for the kind of story I seem to be in the mood for these days. There's just something comforting about this sort of thing, especially if you have a fondness for the setting and the whole improbably idea of young, energetic marrieds solving a murder that stumps the cops.
"You won't find their [Audrey and William Roos] names among the giants of the genre but their contribution to what that other Allentown mystery writer - John Dickson Carr - called the 'Grandest Game," deserves not to be overlooked. They showed, as son Stephen puts it, what it was like to be young and in love in New York of the 1940's and, perhaps even more importantly, that mysteries were meant to be fun." From the introduction by Tom and Enid Schantz.
And since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked authors other bloggers are talking about today.