By common agreement, the Golden Age of detective fiction ended when the 1940s began. From 1920 to 1939, according to this formulation, tales about feats of detection came into their own as a variety of literature with broadly shared standards of quality and with a recognized pantheon of outstanding practitioners. Arguably, however, it was in the following decade—the decade that began when the era of interwar peace ended—that the detective novel reached is pinnacle of achievement. In the early 1940s, first-time contributors and established figures in the genre started issuing minor and major masterpieces on a scale that resembled the rate of production in the munitions factories that were then kicking into high gear. For these writers, the distinction between art and entertainment, between serious fiction and playful mystification, practically disappears. Drawing on all of the resources provided by a maturing genre, they stand out for their ability to embed fair-play murder puzzles within richly conceived stories about people who lead socially realistic, emotionally complex lives. In many instances, they sound romantic or satiric themes that derive from the traditions of comedy. But just as frequently (in novels such as Calamity Town, by Ellery Queen; Green for Danger, by Christiana Brand; and Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie), they strike a note of tragedy that resonates even after the typical reader forgets the clever solution that they have engineered.
For a prime example of this trend, one could hardly do better than to cite the work at hand. Murder Among Friends, the inaugural entry in a four-book series about Lieutenant Richard Tuck of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a classic of humane, literate detection. The friends in question are students, researchers, and employees at an unnamed medical school. (Stray references to the surrounding topography indicate that this institution is part of the University of Southern California.) Shortly before the action of the novel begins, a secretary named Garnet Dillon leaves her job at the school suddenly and without explanation. The young woman who takes her place, Kate Farr, serves as the novel’s co-equal protagonist—a point-of-view figure whose story runs parallel with that of Tuck’s investigation. On her first day as the new secretary, Kate witnesses the discovery of Garnet’s corpse in the school’s anatomy lab. An autopsy establishes poisoning by ingestion of digitalis as the cause of death, and the testimony of Garnet’s boss effectively rules out the possibility of suicide. But if it’s a case of murder, who had the wherewithal to administer a fatal dose? That question leads Tuck to focus his inquiry on the eponymous circle of friends, several of whom are young men who harbored (or may have harbored) amorous feelings for the victim.
With a light but certain touch, Lewis portrays the workings of the detective mind in its full glory. Tuck isn’t the most colorful sleuth—his main identifying trait is his extreme height—but he navigates his way through a thicket of clues and complications with easy-going intelligence. Step by step, he examines every viable permutation of means, motive, and opportunity. Lewis smoothly interweaves scenes that feature Tuck with scenes that revolve around the clutch of friends who, in the wake of Garnet’s murder, continue their struggle to build careers and lives. In witty, perfectly modulated prose, she fashions an immediately believable world around these characters and confers a sense of gravity on the murder case that looms over them. The global war that the United States had just entered when these events take place receives a single glancing mention. But the denouement alludes to the kind of life-and-death actions that the war will soon compel young people like Kate and her cohorts to make on a regular basis.