5/4/11

Which Witch is Which?

Journalist and author, Zelda Popkin, is today better remembered, if she's remembered at all, for her novel The Journey Home (1945), selling close to a million copies, in which she sets forth the story of a chance meeting between a homeward soldier and a career woman against the backdrop of a catastrophic train crash.

But she also wrote a series of detective novels featuring one of the first professional female detectives, the independent-minded Mary Carner, who works for a large department store as a security detective – looking out for their merchandise and tackling shoplifters. In Murder in the Mist (1940), her second recorded case, she also demonstrates a very feminine mindset, that was definitely ahead of her time, by humiliating and verbally burning an incompetent police chief to a crisp and leaving her newly acquired spouse at the hotel, to take care of a child, while she goes on the hunt for a murderer.

A touch gal who should go over very well with a contemporary reading audience and scholars.

The Wicked Witch of Laneport

When Mary Carner and Christopher Whittaker, New York City's most credible department store detectives, take a wrong turn on their honeymoon, they end up in the picturesque New England coastal town of Laneport – a flocking place for two-bit artists and gossipy old coffin dodgers.

The newlywed couple decides to check into the local hotel, The Rockledge, for the night, but after snugly turning in, Mary is awakened by a little girl tugging at her arm – whispering complainingly that it's chilly and how she's unable to rouse her mommy. What follows is a powerful scene, in which Mary discovers the marble-white, stone-cold body of the girls' mother in the next room. A black metal spike is projecting from her bare chest.

The child is inconsolable with grief when she learns why her mother didn't respond to her calling and tugging, but after they managed to calm her down a bit they learn that she actually saw the assailant who killed her mother, however, how tenable is her statement when the only description she's able to give is that of a cloaked witch with a broom. These moments, in which reality and fantasy seem to merge for a brief moment, are the best aspects of the plot.

Crime Map of Laneport
Zelda Popkin shows plenty of imagination and has a flair for telling a fascinating story, in which she smoothly blends fantastic plot elements, such as murderous witches, cloven hoof-prints and a deserted village, with a sincere, down-to-earth effect of murder (the orphaned kid of the murdered woman) while also going through the motions of a proper detective story – lining up, some usual and unusual suspects, ranging from a sculptor and his jealous wife, an ex-murderer in hiding, a fleeing millionaires son and an elfish old codger, who, at times, gets wrapped-up too much in his daydreams.

However, the professed solution, and the events leading up to the unmasking of the murdering witch, leaves a lot to be desired for the self-proclaimed armchair detectives whose only desire is a fair shot at cracking the case before the detective does – and the fact that Mary doesn't work out the solution by logical reasoning from clues, or even a single flash of intuition, either, but by pure happenstance, as she witnesses the murderer accidentally recreating the tell-tale hoof-prints, doesn't do much to uplift the disappointing feeling.

In many ways, Murder in the Mist, reminded me of a Gladys Mitchell novel, in which she interestingly underplayed her wildly effective imagination, but with her greatest weakness, a penchant for weak, ineffective and muddled endings, in full-swing.

That's why I can only recommend this book to mystery readers who don't care about the puzzle element or fans of Gladys Mitchell, who want to contrast her work with this book.

2 comments:

  1. This sounds like an interesting piece of work. Being in the middle of my first Mitchell (and thoroughly enjoying it), I might check this author out sometime. The initial set-up sounds highly intriguing.

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  2. The initial set-up of the story is very well done, and aptly told, but the ending almost makes the book an anti-detective story.

    I also have one of her later books, Dead Man's Gift, which almost sounds like a hackneyed, clichéd-riddled detective story (involving wills and cut-off mansions). In short, Pokin seems like a very interesting, but problematic, mystery writer – very much like Gladys Mitchell.

    Enjoy your first case with Mrs. Bradley. :)

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