"This world would be in darkness without a sense of duty."
- Fuu (Samurai Champloo)
I struck up an acquaintance with Frances Crane a few months ago, when the inestimable Rue Morgue Press reissued The Pink Umbrella (1943), but I didn't exactly fell head-over-heels with the book. The detectives, Pat and Jean Abbott, the quintessential mystery solving husband-and-wife team that were all the rage back in the 1940s, were fun enough and the fluid, carelessly loose style of story telling had its attractions – but as an exercise in logical deductions and spotting fair-play clues the plot left a lot to be desired. But everyone has their off-days and I set my sights on the next title in the series, The Applegreen Cat (1943), which was slated to be release anytime soon – and received praise from Anthony Boucher!
The Pink Umbrella was the first story in which the Abbott's came onstage as a married couple, but with Pat enlisting in the marines and ready to be shipped off to war in a matter of days their separation is imminent – and the limited time they had together was interrupted by a one or two inconvenient murders. This would lead you to expect that the succeeding book entails a solo case for Jean Abbott, while her husband is overseas fighting the good cause, but they've worked out a clever scheme to be together during these trying days as they are now both stationed in wartime Brittain – Pat as a military intelligence author with the U.S. marines and Jean as a secretary with the Land-Lease Program.
Upon their arrival, Jean diligently toiled at weaving a social network around them and landed herself an invitation for two at the home of Stephen and Cynthia Heyward, fellow compatriots with their own business in London, who are throwing a weekend house party at their estate for family and friends.
Great move, Mrs. Abbott! A self-confessed murder magnate sets foot on English soil and her first course of action is obtaining an invitation to a sleep-over party at an old Tudor mansion – filled to the roof with people who harbor their fair share of secrets and hidden motives. So, of course, it's ludicrous to presume that under these circumstances a mere murder would interrupt a quiet country weekend with tea and tennis on the lawn. Not one murder, anyway. They're in England, after all, and murder in triplicate is the usual recipe over there. Ask Tom Barnaby.
The body of the first person to spoil a perfectly fine weekend is turns up when the Heyward's son, Kip, who's a R.A.F. Squadron leader home on leave, takes his punt for a midnight row on the lake when he bumps into another boat near the waterside – and its gruesome cargo comprises of the cooled-off remains of a murdered woman and a dart, jammed between her shoulder blades, that was purloined from the mansions play room, whose wooden handle is adorned with a penciled image of the titular applegreen cat. At first, it's presumed that the victim is Lorna Erickson, an alluring brunette with a tendency to capture the eyes of men and a knack for antagonizing their women, since she is the most likely candidate of the party to get her neck wrung, but the body turns out to be that the housemaid. The murderer appears to have dispatched the wrong victim to the great hereafter, however, before long the head maid takes a swig from a morphine-laced drink and succumbs to one heck of a hangover – which leaves the Heyward household in a tight spot: where do you find competent replacements with the servant problem what it is?
Yeah, this is not a detective story that takes itself too seriously, in defiance of the fact that events in this book have a dark undercurrent, leaving an entire stack of cadaver's before reaching the final page, but instead tends to be chatty with scenes that make the book somewhat of a comedy of manners. There's a clash of cultures, taking place in the background of the story, between the American inhabitants of the old mansion and the local police inspector – who's a bit nonplussed by the care-free attitude of his suspects in the face of a murder investigation (canceling their tennis matches never crossed their minds for even a single moment), while he receives disapproving frowns for his classism.
These bits-and-pieces of satirical social commentary are clearly remnants of the ambitions she once had for her literary career, but had to settle on penning detective stories instead and I can't help but think if her style wasn't better suited for the type of novels she wanted to write. But as I pointed out in my previous review, we won from the lost suffered by mainstream literature and even though she wasn't one of the neatest plotters in the game – her books have a joyful exuberance about them that is very infectious.
In conclusion, The Applegreen Cat is a fairly minor story, but also an out-and-out improvement on the preceding novel, The Pink Umbrella, with tighter writing, a firmer grasp on the plot and some clever touches that I felt was lacking in their previous investigation. Pat and Jean Abbott still have a long way to go before they're on equal footing with Jeff and Haila Troy or Jane and Dagobert Brown, but they're off to a good restart with this book.
Oh, and my sincere apologies for the awful punning title!