The Stars Grow Dimmer

"I look at tomorrow with one eye,
while keeping my other eye on yesterday."
- The Real Folks Blues (OST Cowboy Bebop)
The last time I perused the pages of a Patrick Quentin novel, a solo effort from Richard Webb entitled Murder at Cambridge (1933), I was confronted with a fiasco and began to wonder if this tangle of pennames had another detective novel to their credit that reflected the same ingenuity showcased in Death and the Maiden (1939) and Black Widow (1952) – with the former being one of my dozen favorite mysteries. 

I sort of ended up abandoning Patrick Quentin for a while until reading a review of Cottage Sinister (1931), a combined project from the tandem of Richard Webb and Martha Kelley, published under the byline "Q. Patrick," on MysteryFile.Com and immediately spotted a recommendation in the comment section from John Norris for two of Hugh Wheeler's unaccompanied outings under their shared penname. One of the titles was Black Widow, praised on here for flaunting a plot that moves with the same meticulous precession as the innards of a Swiss watch, while the other, Suspicious Circumstances (1957), was an unfamiliar title for me, however, there was a copy buried somewhere in the caverns of my to-be-read pile – so guess what I dug out for today's review?

Suspicious Circumstances opens with our narrator, Nicholas "Nickie" Rood, teenage son of the world famous actress Anny Rood and aspiring novelist living in Paris, receiving a telegram from his mother with an urgent plea to return home post-haste. Nickie feels very little for a trip back home, but does manage to struggle himself free from the loving embrace of his Monique and flies home for what turns out to be a funeral – and it appears as if his mother had more of a hand in it than just lending one to help with the preparations of the service. The legend that is Anny Rood, "of the Great Swooping Eyes and the Bone Structure," is a strong and well characterized woman, whose almost revoltingly nice and would go to the limit to help others, but the subtle imperfections that stud her personality humanizes her and successfully prevented the birth of another Mary Sue.

One of her schemes that could be filed away under "Acts of Neighborly Love," are her indefatigable attempts to mend the broken marriage between two of her friends, famous independent producer-director and her not-so-secretly admirer Ronald Light and his washed-up actress-wife Norma Delanay, even using her charms to maneuver Ronald into giving Norma the leading role in a sex-million-dollar Cinematic-scope spectacle based on the life of Ninon de Lenclos. It's one of those roles women would kill for and Anny's convinced that the newfound success that will stalk Norma upon the release of this new picture will get her off the booze and back with Ronald, but her friendly intrusions are resented and everything explodes in her face – especially when Norma's fading star turns into a falling one as she plummets down a flight of stairs. Oh, and Anny had just agreed to take over the role of Ninon.

Serial Mom: the skeleton in her own closet
It's impossible to describe any further events in the book without revealing too much because the plots is an accumulation of problems for Anny Rood and her entourage, which is the story's biggest selling point for the simple reason that you are never quite sure what kind of detective story you are reading until you have reached the solution. Is it an inverted-mystery, of sorts, in which sweet, innocent Anny Rood is a predecessor of Serial Mom (1994) or a diabolical parody revealing the unfortunate deaths to be nothing more than mere accidents and the suspicion of murder nothing more than the product over an overactive imagination of a teenage boy – encouraged by rivalries one should expect in a industry like Hollywood films. By the way, I thought Nickie was a very likeable narrator and used a line from Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven” and a scene from James' Lost Horizon (1933) to describe two of the characters after certain events. Never thought I would come across a reference to that novel in a mystery. Loved it!

Anyway, eventually, I did stumble to the correct solution, although it was more instinctively rather than deductively, but it was good one even if it was not in the same league as Death and the Maiden or Black Widow. The revelation of the murderers identity comes through a signed confession, which is never a satisfying device, but somewhat acceptable here because the story lacked a detective figure. All in all, not bad, not bad at all. But not as a good as some of their other work.

Something ironic occurred to me while reading this book. It dawned on me that this is the kind of story that Ellery Queen tried to write during their Wrightsville/Hollywood period, when they were aiming for more realism in their novels, but even a greater emphasis on character could, IMHO, not reveal that they were as detach from reality as their first period books – and ditching reversed rooms, cut-off mountain top mansions and decapitated corpses nailed to road signs does not necessarily make a story any more realistic. However, for all the claims made against Ellery Queen for their lack of realism it's their name that's still (somewhat) being remembered and their books are still being read while only a few of us possess eyes that won't glaze over when they check the pennames Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge at us.

It really makes you wonder how aware some of the genre's detractors are of its history as it's really easy to point to a few of Christie's village mysteries/closed-circle of suspects novels and some of her fellow Crime Queens to conjure up a stereotypical image of a 1930s whodunit. Why always point to the usual suspects when there are so many wonderful examples of good detective fiction that should get a stamp of approval from modern critics if characterization and innovation actually means as much as they say it does. 

GAD never explored sexual relationships in-depth? What about Peter and Iris Duluth? Their relation is very explicitly depicted over a number of books and they even met at a sanatorium when they were complete wrecks. For Carr's sake, how modern do you want it to get? GAD emphasizes plot over characters? Pick up a Pat McGerr novel and marvel at how the characters dictate every twist and turn the plot takes. GAD had no eye for the lower/working classes? Go talk with Curt Evans and he will tell you about a man who penned a staggering amount of detective novels named John Rhode. You probably never heard of him let alone read one of his books, which is why we take you as serious as an Alzheimer patient lecturing on the nonverbal communication in silent films. Or better yet, read "The Adventure of the Lost Men," a radio play penned during the 1940s for The Adventures of Ellery Queen, in which the setting is a community of homeless people.

Well, that’s enough ranting and raving against windmills for one day. Thanks for suffering, once again, through one of my vague rambles. :)


  1. This is the kind of suspense crime fiction I really enjoy when I feel inundated with the usual whodunits. I'm glad it appealed to you. It was brought to my attention by someone I met at Bouchercon last year. We were talking about vintage novels that have been out of print for decades and she mentioned a writer she hoped I heard of: "Patrick Quentin?" "Of course I have!" I replied. She raved about this book and told me that Patrick Quentin was one of the most popular mystery writers in Norway when she was growing up.

  2. TomCat

    I enjoyed both the review and the rant!

    I wish I’ve read more of the Quentin/Q.Patrick books myself. I’d like to be able to say exactly why their detective fiction was never as popular or well known as Ellery Queen’s. I know there’s a large amount of variability in their books, but if you want “realism” in your detective fiction, the Quentin/Q.Patrick books can’t be beat, as far as I can tell from the ones I have read.

    Are they better than the EQ books in the latter’s middle and later period, when the two cousins were going with the times and trying to make their books more “real” than the pure puzzle novels they were writing in the 30s? Based on the evidence I’ve read with my own eyes, I’m hesitating but I think I might have to say yes.

    — Steve