I alluded in an earlier review to the intricate relationships and ever changing combinations of the participating members of a collaborative writing team, primarily known under the shared penname of Patrick Quentin, and the near impossibility to shortly summarize the inner workings of the group for a simple review as this one. Therefore, I will confine myself to the rudimentary facts, and tell you that Death and the Maiden (1939) was written by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb, one of the regular tandems of the group, and was signed as by Q. Patrick (as "inconspicious" as an anonym as "Carter Dickson").
Ruckus on the Campus
Death and the Maiden is easily one of the best detective stories I read this year, and has all the ear-marks of a first-rate whodunit: an elaborate, multi-layered woven plot, well-rounded, believable characters and a fairly good setting, however, the best part of the story is that the Webb and Wheeler have taken the intelligence and experience of their readers into the equation. The observant and experienced mystery reader will probably spot the murderer, either deductively or instinctively, before the final chapter, but the story is so diabolically clever and trickily plotted that you're in for a surprise no matter how solid your deductions were or how sensitive your intuition is.
Being able to gauge your readers' intelligence and knowledge of the genre, and acting on them to cleverly mislead them, is one of the greatest gifts a mystery writer can possess – and makes for a satisfying read. It's like both men crossed time and space to point and snicker at me, while saying, "Ha! You thought we came at you from this angle, but then we turned around come at you from that spot." Well played, guys. Well played.
This fiendishly cunning story revolves around Grace Hough, not one of the most popular woman on campus, who's been receiving a string of special delivery letters – which everyone presumes to be love notes from a mysterious admirer or even a secret lover. But the letters become sinister tell-tale clues, when, after a short disappearance, her body is dragged from the river of a small town – twenty miles removed from the campus grounds.
The efficient Lieutenant Trant is put on the case and skillfully unsnarls a tangled and complicated web of lies, motives and clues to discover who from the small pool of suspects, consisting of fellow students and faculty members, murdered the unpopular and dangerous Grace Hough – who's final actions resembled that of a kamikaze pilot. It's really no wonder she ended up with a dent in the back of her skull.
Lieutenant Trant is a memorable detective without being an overbearing, eccentric snob who spouts Latin phrases and quotes obscure passages from Shakespeare every five minutes. He's a shrewd, scheming homicide detective who's cut from the same mold as his colleague Lieutenant Columbo. Just like him, Lt. Trant has a knack for wreaking havoc on the nerves of suspects and knows how to give them more than enough rope to hang themselves with. In a way, his personality and police methods makes it almost disappointing that the plot wasn't constructed as an inverted detective story.
On a final note, I have to say that Patrick Quentin has impressed me as a mature equivalent of Ellery Queen. Quentin's detective stories boost the same complex, multi-layered plots and clueing as Ellery Queen, but their tone was more serious, their themes darker and they were simply better at creating characters.
Concisely, this is a five-star detective story – worthy of being labeled a classic.