"Died on Thursday, buried on Saturday, mourned on Sunday."
Helen Reilly was a copious writer of detective stories, publishing more than thirty novels and a smattering of short stories during a career that stretched out over three decades, in which she accentuated proper police work and forensic methodology – making her a progenitor of the modern police procedure. This modus operandi is embodied in her main character, Inspector Christopher McKee of Centre Street, who "never soloed" and holds "that what he did he did with the backing of a great organization and the help of disciplined and trained men," which at the time was an innovative divergence from the norm.
Mourned on Sunday (1941) reads like a hybrid between a classically styled whodunit and a modern-day police procedure, in which an efficient and expeditious team of New York policemen find themselves relocated to the small town of Silverbrook – in order to disentangle an innocent woman from an attempted murder charge.
The maiden in distress turns out to be an attractive young widow, Nora Dalrymple, who walked down the aisle into the arms of an older, well-heeled gentleman in order to replenish her fathers bank account, but this came at the expense of a broken heart – as the marriage made it impossible for Nora to be with her one true love, Roger Thew. To prevent further heartache, Nora took off with her newly acquired spouse and broke off every line of communication with her former sweetheart.
Nora endured the prolonged agony of an uneventful marriage to an older man before he croaked and the nearly broke, but reinvigorated, widow decides to move back to Silverbrook, but coming home proves to be an disenchanting experience when Roger turns out to have married Sybil Cornwell during her absence – a local girl whose mother recently came into a lot of money.
This is a situation that is ripe for a death within the towns tightly-knit community and someone is reaping its nefarious fruits, as Sybil's mother plunges from a 10th floor window of a hotel in New York City unto the glass roof of the cocktail lounge, which is credited to Nora by the towns people – and they resent her for it. They nearly succeeded in their campaign to drive Nora from their town until someone drove into Sybil Thew on the Devil's Gorge Road and the silent witnesses all seem to point an accusing finger at Nora.
Enter Inspector Christopher McKee of Centre Street, who read the news of the attempted murder of Sybil Thew and the incarceration of Nora Dalrymple in the morning papers, making his mind drift back to Alice Cornwall fatally tumbling from a hotel window, which was filed away as an accidental death, but he simply refuses to believe that mother and daughter both had brushes with the specter of death within a month of each other – especially when a large sum of money is involved and promptly reopens the New York end of the case.
Stylistically, this story bears some resemblance to some of Ngaio Marsh's mystery novels, featuring Scotland Yard's very own Roderick Alleyn, in which the opening section sets-up the background décor and introduces the main players to the reader. The first act also sets out the problem to be investigated by the detective who's waiting in the wings for his cue. Unfortunately, the second act of this story suffers from pretty much the same problems you stumble across in a lot of Marsh's novels: the first act was driven by inspiration, while the second half was bogged down by routine.
Nevertheless, this was more than made up with a smashing finale, set at an abandoned log cabin, where a clever and surprising solution was sprung on an unsuspecting reader – at least a reader who wasted his time laboring arduously on an Agatha Christie-like solution and failed epically! I still find it hard to believe that I overlooked some really, really obvious tell-tale clues!
Sure, you can argue about the fairness or feasibility of this ingeniously executed, perhaps overly ambitious, plot, but it has to be admitted that it was cleverly and skillfully handled – which makes me want to give less weight to the fluctuating quality of the overall story.
So while this book is not eligible for a landmark status within the genre, it still has one or two neat ideas tucked away between its covers with a resolution that wrapped up the story on the same high note as it embarked on.
By the way, a question for everyone with an intimate knowledge of Helen Reilly's body of work: the story ends with McKee getting a message that a man has been shot on the steps of the Public Library at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. Is this a set-up for the next book or one of those unrecorded cases?