Divorcees in Crime

Note: I wrote this review when my concentration was completely shot, so it didn't turn out the way I wanted.

It's a well-established fact that Kelley Roos is one of my all-time favorite mystery writers, only second to the unsurpassed master of the locked room mystery, John Dickson Carr, and I'm sure that some of my fellow detective enthusiasts are probably sick and tired at this point of me pouncing at every opportunity to proselytize Roos' work – especially that unacknowledged masterpiece, The Frightened Stiff (1942), which, by the way, is still in print. Just FYI.

I adulate Roos' witty style that's usually tightly woven with the threads of a cleverly crafted plot, and I dote on Jeff and Haila Troy – one of the better bantering husband-and-wife detective teams in the genre. Considering this affinity I have for the books and characters, it was disconcerting to learn that, in their last recorded case, my favorite snooping couple had gone their separated ways!

One False Move (1966) was written after a seventeen year break from the series, in which between suspense and thriller stories appeared under the Kelley Roos byline, but before the end of the second decade, William and Aubrey Roos decided to return to the traditional detective story – resulting in an amusing romp, in which they deliver playful jabs to their own body of work, both their straightforward detective stories and suspenseful thrillers, as well as their characters.

Torn Asunder

After her divorce from Jeff Troy, Haila Rogers packs up and leaves New York City behind her to recuperate with relatives living in Carsonville, a scant town in Texas momentarily buzzing with activity as the town's anniversary nears closer and the rehearsals for a pageant are in full swing – reenacting a fairly recent and bloody piece of local history, involving a gang of outlaws and several brutal murders. But that's all stuff for the history books, and, with the era of desperados behind them, the town reclaimed its sleepy demeanor and serenity.

But they didn't reckon that with Haila's arrival, they welcomed someone in their midst who's a chronic sufferer from, what later would be diagnosed as, "Jessica Fletcher Syndrome," which especially acts up in an aggressive manner in small town environments – and before long, she just so happens to overhear fragments of a heated argument, between a blackmailer and his unidentifiable victim, naturally ending with a fatal knife thrust to the blackguard's heart.

As I mentioned earlier, the Rooses gently poke fun at themselves in this book, and they acknowledge their heroines morbid habit, of tumbling over bodies wherever she goes, in a conversation between her and the local chief of police:  

"This isn't the first murder victim you’ve discovered?"
"Well ... no"
"The second?"
"Well ..."
The chief's eyebrows rose above his steel-rimmed glasses.
"The third, Miss Rogers?"
"Well, it's been quite a few. Come to think of it, I’ve never kept count. You see, my ex-husband was always getting mixed up in murder cases. In fact, that was one of our bones of ... shall I say, contention?"

In defense of Jeff, that's hardly fair criticism when only moments ago she tripped over the still-warm and bleeding remains of the first homicide victim the town has seen in decades, but then again, maybe she has a valid point when a second murder of a local admiral, battered to death with a bronze bust of Shakespeare, coincides with him unexpectedly showing up in town – and even has a nearly fateful brush with the murderer.

This subtle way of poking fun at the conventions of the genre and their own stories is pretty typical of this book, and you have to be a little familiar with their previous work to fully appreciate it. For instance, if you contrast some of the events, concerning Jeff and Haila, with those from their first detective novel, Made Up to Kill (1940), you have to conclude that the series has come full-circle – as both the characters and readers rediscovers one another. 

The humor and zest of the earlier books are still very much a part of this late entry into the series, but the plotting, alas, seems to have suffered from the Rooses picking up the traditional whodunit format again, after having abondoned the form for so many years to write thrillers and suspense stories. Not that the plot is an awful mess or painfully transparent, but proper detection has become a secondary concern, nevertheless, the two modern murders were neatly tied-in with the towns history set against a semi-theatrical backdrop – which is worthy of at least one or two bonus points.

Everything considered, this is not a book to begin with if you're new to the series, but if you're devotee of Kelley Roos than you probably want to check up on your old friends, Jeff and Haila Troy, and find out for yourself how they will haul themselves out of this messy quagmire.


  1. *grumbles* All right, all right! I'll read "The Frightened Stiff"!

    Well, not just yet... I have one final exam this evening before I earn my freedom. And I've got a few library books on my TBR pile that have to be cleared off first. But I'll get there. Your praise of the Roos books always gets me intrigued...

  2. TomCat

    I've sent off for a copy of THE FRIGHTENED STIFF. It hasn't even been dispatched to me yet, but when it does eventually arrive I'll make sure to read it. After all of the praise that you've directed towards 'Kelley Roos', I'm somewhat impatient to read the story.

  3. I hope you'll get as much enjoyment out of reading the book as I have, and you're about the twelfth person, or so, I 'pestered' into buying/reading this book! And nearly everyone was as positive about the book as I was (only Patrick lacked my overall enthusiasm for the story).

  4. Just finished it. Very enjoyable. The humour flows mainly from the dialogue, and there is a fair amount of quite spooky stuff (such as a bit on, I think, page 151). The characterisation is good, and the story is well clued and worked out. I'm surprised that Kelley Roos is now pretty much forgotten by the general public, but I intend to make sure that I read more Roos in the future

  5. I'm glad you enjoyed the book! I also highly recommend Sailor, Take Warning!, which also has been reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press and is only a cut below The Frightened Stiff plot wise, there are some fair-play issues concerning the motive, but otherwise just as funny.