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LANGE LEWIS. Murder Among Friends (1942).

10 Apr

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. MurderAmongFriends.jpg 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.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on April 10, 2019 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

9 responses to “LANGE LEWIS. Murder Among Friends (1942).

  1. JJ

    April 11, 2019 at 12:02 PM

    Sounds rather fabulous, Mike — all I have to do now is find a copy…!

     
    • Mike

      April 11, 2019 at 12:09 PM

      Fear not, JJ. It’s available at decent prices in both Kindle and PB editions from Amazon UK (and from Amazon US, for that matter). Note well that I’m not alone in praising the book. John at Pretty Sinister (see the embedded link in my post) raved about it several years ago.

       
      • JJ

        April 12, 2019 at 3:15 AM

        Ah! Good news! And, yes, I read John N’s review and was equally as impressed — man, so many books…

         
  2. rinaldo302

    April 11, 2019 at 8:02 PM

    Is that opening statement really a “common agreement”? It had always seemed to me, both from my own reading and from what commentators say, that the Golden Age extended through the 1940s, or nearly. I’m genuinely puzzled.

     
    • Mike

      April 12, 2019 at 7:20 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Rinaldo. You’re right to note that there isn’t a hard-and-fast understanding of when the Golden Age came to an end. But the default view, I’d say, does equate the GAD period with the “Long Weekend” era of the 1920s and 1930s. At best, commentators will extend the period into the 1940s as a sort of courtesy to the Golden Age practitioners who continued to flourish during that decade. Yet I’d assert—it’s a real hobbyhorse of mine—that the 1940s mark the apex of achievement in the writing of classic detection. Maybe we should call those years during and after WWII the Platinum Age.

       
  3. prettysinister

    April 12, 2019 at 6:46 PM

    Reading this fine review makes me smile. This is one of my favorite detective American detective novels from the war years. I was deeply moved by it. Had a lot to do with some personal issues in my life at the time, but I think it has a universal profundity as well. When I wrote about this book on my blog back in 2013 it received lots of attention and Brian Busby paid me a high compliment about how I managed to reveal enough about the story to intrigue him without ever spoiling it. Sadly, I think I have lost that skill of late. Anyway, I have always wanted to get this book reprinted for years now. I have a small list of “Dream Reprints” and this is in the top five. The book I recently read and wrote about his week, BTW, (MURDER DRAWS A LINE) has a passage that I quote in my post that immediately made me think about Garnet Dillon’s sorrowful life in MURDER AMONG FRIENDS. That’s how powerful this novel is for me. I still remember it six years after I read it.

     
    • Mike

      April 14, 2019 at 10:12 AM

      Thanks for the heart-felt comment, John. Over the years, you have done exemplary service when it comes to highlighting the merits of unjustly forgotten detective novels, but your celebration of MAB deserves a special commendation. I don’t know the particulars, but presumably you had something to do with the decision by Wildside Press to bring the book back into print.

      On the matter of spoilers, I’m able to avoid them mostly because I don’t write a lot about plot. Exposition of that sort isn’t my strong suit.

       
  4. Christophe

    April 13, 2019 at 4:54 PM

    Excellent review, including the lead paragraph on the 1940s being the apex of the genre and why.

     
    • Mike

      April 14, 2019 at 10:11 AM

      Christophe, I’m glad that you (like Rinaldo below) noted my ode to the wonders of 1940s detective fiction. In another life, one that blessed me with more time and more willpower, I’d write a full-length essay on the topic. It was in the 1940s that Carr produced many of his finest, most carefully balanced puzzle tales, and it was then that Christie reached the peak of her literary power. What’s more, even as other authors explored relatively new variations on the mystery genre (the hard-boiled private-eye tale, the psychological suspense thriller) they tended to retain certain key elements—cluing, formal detection, misdirection—of the classic form. Only in the decades after 1950 did “mystery” writers start acting as if those elements were passé.

       

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