Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not a belated rant on Disney's inane scheme for a modern rendition of the Miss Marple character – plucking her from a quiet village in the British countryside and dumping her in the Big City in the guise of a present-day version of a 1920s flapper.
I will not drop any embittered comments on how Agatha Christie's grandson is pimping out her estate and that everyone with a pocketful of loose change can take Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple for a ride. Nor shall I make poor attempts at sarcasm by saying that the next major announcement will probably be that Harlequin Publishers has acquired the rights to The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930), and are in the process of revising them into full-length romance novels – with all the detective stuff cut out of them, of course, but to make up for the lost of authenticity they will slap the name of Mary Westmacott on the covers. Nope. Not a peep out of me on that subject.
The Disney I'm referring to is Dorothy Cameron Disney, one of the many shamefully neglected names in the field, who specialized in blending detection with atmospheric scenes of suspense and eerie foreshadowing sequences – commonly referred to as "Had-I-But-Known." This term is used to describe the books of Mary Robert Rinehart and her followers, who usually have their heroine reflecting back at the start of their novels, "had I but known that my surprise visit to my Great-aunt Agatha would expose a dark plot leading to the death of four people, I would never have gone to Rockport." Or something that runs along similar lines.
To be fair, this particular sub-genre never really appealed to me, sounding just a little bit too much as cozies with some doom and gloom added to the mix, but the descriptions and reviews of Dorothy Cameron Disney's mysteries, suggesting complex plotting wrapped up in a thick, atmospheric blanket, did catch my attention – and after reading her first book, Death in the Back Seat (1936), I'm glad that, once again, I succumbed to temptation.
Death in the Back Seat opens with a young couple, Jack and Lola Storm, taking a break from their expensive New York lifestyle, and settle down for while in the quiet town of Crockford, situated in rural Connecticut, where they rent a small cottage from the unsociable Luella Coatesnash – a stout, old-fashioned woman who's somewhat of an unofficial sovereign of the region.
But peace and quietness simply cannot be allowed to reign long in a detective story, and when a mysterious telephone call, more or less, orders the Storms to pick up a business acquaintance of their landlady, who, at that moment, is visiting France with her companion, they're unwillingly dragged into a vast and dark plot – leaving them with a corpse on the rumble seat of their car and a bag in the front seat stashed with cash.
And that's just for starters. Crockford, being the small town it is, are prejudiced against the suspicious outsiders and it doesn't exactly help that their cottage, and the grounds immediately surrounding it, are the center of all the criminal activity in the region – from a burglar, his face blackened with charcoal, stumbling from their closet and fleeing into the night to charred fragments of bone in a furnace.
|Crime Map on the Back Cover|
However, they're not making things exactly easy for themselves, either, purposely stumbling from one dangerous situation into another – all the while finding clues, uncovering hidden relationships, and, more importantly, not trying to get themselves killed. The only thing you can say against them is that they don't do it with the same joie de vivre as the Troys and the Browns, but then again, this not that type of mystery.
This book is really one big knotted ball of plot threads that slowly unravels in front of a captivated reader, and the best part is that you can play with it yourself, by trying to unsnarl it before Jack and Lola do, or, uhm, just sit back and enjoy the ride.
On a final note, Mike Grost notes on his excellent website that Disney completely ignored one of Van Dine's sacred rules, and I have one thing to say about that: good for her!
There are, IMHO, only two rules for writing a good detective story: it has to play fair with the reader and there has to be a plot (or at the very least an attempt at creating one). I see no discernible reason why a detective story should exclude sinister societies, monstrous conspiracies, tough gangsters or a genuine love interest. It just depends on how well an author can work these elements into a story, and some do it better than others. Disney is one of them and scores full marks for this effort.