KELLEY ROOS. The Frightened Stiff (1942).

21 Jan

Two-thirds of the way into this finely tuned puzzler, the third in a series that stars the wisecracking young couple Jeff and Haila Troy, Haila asks her husband what he plans to do next. It’s a classic moment in a detective novel that is very much in the classic mode—the moment when all of the essential clues in a case have come to light and when the hero pauses to take stock of them. Jeff says that his next move will be to “[r]ack my brains.” About what? He explains: “About a bedridden lady and her sister. About another lady who has a restaurant and a small boy. About a man named Jacob Bruhl who doesn’t get the letters you write to him. About Mike Kaufman. Furniture. A gangster named Ziggy Koehler and a landlord. A retired art dealer. Scott Carstairs and a borrowed book. … Panda bears. [D]oors opening and closing in the middle of the night. Screens with addresses on them, this and that.” (This litany of clues echoes a feature of the Dell mapback books of the 1940s. At the front of most titles in that series, the publisher included a list of “Things this mystery is about.” And, fittingly enough, Dell issued a mapback version of this novel.) Jeff leaves out what might be the most fundamental element of the case, the one that literally encompasses all of the people and most of the physical items that he enumerates. Each of those people lives (or, in the case of Mike Kaufman, the murder victim, lived) at 39 Gay Street, a brownstone apartment house tucked into a quiet byway in Greenwich Village. The furniture, the opening and closing doors, and the screens also belong to that structure. And Jeff and Haila Troy live there, too. FrightenedStiff.jpg

From the opening of the novel, when Haila takes possession of a basement unit at 39 Gay Street, to its climactic scene, in which Jeff chases a murderer across the building’s rooftop, odd and menacing occurrences cast a shadow over the place that they call home. At one level, in other words, Roos provides an urban reworking of the gothic tradition in which a fine old house becomes practically a character unto itself. Roos also draws on the common observation that New Yorkers routinely live alongside people whom they never get to know: Gotham, as many people have noted, is a place where neighbors often aren’t very neighborly.

Before the Troys can spend their first night in their new abode, they discover a naked corpse—the “frightened stiff” cited in the book’s title—in their backyard garden. Someone had killed a man in their bathtub and then moved the body to that little patch of green space. The core mystery centers on which of the residents at 39 Gay Street had a connection to the dead man: Early evidence indicates that the murder was an inside job. Indeed, on the simplistic but not unreasonable principle of guilt by proximity, Inspector Hankins of the NYPD casts a suspicious eye on the Troys. So Jeff, a photographer by trade, has a more than sporting interest in amateur clue-gathering. Roos fashions a nifty murder plot for him to unravel, and (with a little help from Haila) he does unravel it.

The Troys are bright young folk who keep their spirits up, and their marriage intact, by quaffing a steady stream of cocktails and producing a steady dose of badinage. So comparing them to Nick and Nora Charles is hard to avoid. (Jeff Troy, like Nick Charles, is both a noted sleuth-hound and a semi-reformed booze hound. In fact, much of the comedy and some of the intrigue in this tale stem from Jeff’s memories of the Prohibition-era speakeasy that once occupied his and Haila’s apartment.) Yet the Troys, even many decades later, come across as freshly realized creations in their own right. Unlike the wealthy and somewhat jaded Charles pair, they embody a kind of cosmopolitan innocence. They’re sophisticated without being cynical, and they make for good company as they march through their big-city adventure.


Posted by on January 21, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle


6 responses to “KELLEY ROOS. The Frightened Stiff (1942).

  1. armchairreviewer

    January 22, 2017 at 3:13 AM

    This is my favourite Troy and Haila mystery I have read to date. The comic style is really well done and the book certainly starts with a startling premise!

    • Mike

      February 17, 2017 at 3:45 PM

      Thanks for your comment. I agree on both points (comedy, premise). The novel would seem to be ideal for film adaption, and someday I hope to get a chance to see the 1942 Hollywood version.

  2. tracybham

    January 25, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    Glad to see you back posting here. Your reviews are informative and entertaining. I haven’t read anything by Kelly Roos yet and I should.

    • Mike

      February 17, 2017 at 3:47 PM

      I appreciate the kind word on my posting, Tracy. (Sorry that I didn’t see your comment until now. Anyway, it’s nice to see that folks are paying attention!)

  3. thegreencapsule

    December 11, 2017 at 9:40 AM

    Does the cover of that Dell map back edition win the “most random art selected for a mystery novel” award? I can’t even fathom what the picture would even relate to in the story.

    Still, I like the style of art…

    • Mike

      December 11, 2017 at 6:50 PM

      Agreed. It’s a generic image that says, “Here’s a murder mystery!” But I love this style of art. It borrows elegantly from surrealism. indeed, with that garish big eye, it reminds me of the weird dream sequence that Salvador Dali designed for the Hitchcock movie “Spellbound.” Anyway, it’s great to chat virtually with another admirer of Kelley Roos.


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