"It's a dirty business, my lad: poisoning kids."- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule, 1939)
Elizabeth Daly was an American novelist who, during the forties of the previous century, penned sixteen sophisticated mystery novels about a professional bibliophile and amateur snoop, Henry Gamadge, which earned her an Edgar statuette – awarded a decade after the publication of her last novel, The Book of the Crime (1951). Reportedly, one of Daly's most famous admirer was no less a figure than Agatha Christie.
So she had excellent credentials, but when I took a look at Daly, some time ago now, I was very disappointed with what I found. The book that turned me away from her work was Murders in Volume 2 (1941), which had an alluring premise, but the plot never delivered the goods and the story progressed excruciatingly slow – comparable to the pace of a morphine drip. There are parts of my brain that think they're still reading the damn book! But enough time has passed to warrant a second glance at Daly and Gamadge.
Deadly Nightshade (1940) was Daly's second mystery novel and finds Gamadge in his private library, "where he followed the occupation of consulting expert on old or pseudo-old books, manuscripts and autographs," but his attention is divided between a yellowed fragment of paper, war news rattling from the wireless and memories of State Detective Mitchell – whom he met in first recorded case, Unexpected Night (1940), when he was "inveigled by circumstances" to play amateur detective. Coincidently, the phone rings a few minutes later and it is a long distance call from Maine. Mitchell has a case on his hands that might interest Gamadge.
A rash of nightshade poisonings of small children plagued the vicinity between Oakport and Harper's Rock, which claimed at least three victims. A group of children got their hands on some poisonous berries and the resulting tragedies varied greatly: the youngest son of Albert Ormiston, a relatively well-known artist, fully recovered, but the daughter of Carroll Bartram, a manufacturer of artificial silk, was allergic to atropine and died. A third girl, Sarah Beasley, evidently had eaten some of the berries, but, in a poisonous stupor, "wandered off and got in the marsh" – she has not been found.
There are also suspicions of a fourth poisoning, involving one of the children from a gypsy camp, which is giving the locals a reason "to start pestering the gypsies," but Mitchell have reasons to believe that the affair is slightly more complicated then that. The boy who survived, Tommy, says "a lady in a car gave him the berries." Only problem is that the poison has a confusing effect on its victim and there can't be a value put on the boy's statement. These poisonings coincided with a fatal motorcycle accident of a young state trooper named Trainor. But was it really an accident?
Gamadge and Mitchell have to dig through a lot of back-stories and family history in order to unsnarl all of the links in the chain of tragedies that rocked the small Maine community. Rooting around in other people's past live can be an unpleasant occupation and this was touched upon when they visited the gypsy camp. Gamadge has his fortune told by an elderly lady, Mrs. Stuart, who told him he was "born under a dark star," the companion of Sirius, which is "so dark that no mortal eye has ever seen it" and is only known through "the perturbation of orbits" – condemning the bibliophile-detective "to perturb the orbits of others" while "remaining unsuspected and unseen." Perturbing is exactly what he does.
In one of the households, he finds the survivor of a forgotten tragedy, the wholesale poisoning of family with arsenic, which also concerned a lost child. He also gets on the trail of woman, a Miss Humphrey, who claimed to work for a magazine and went around snapping pictures of children for a competition to crown the finest child in Maine. However, some of the more interesting plot-threads were introduced to the story through the Bartram family.
Carroll's brother, George, sold his part in the silk mill to his brother and moved to the Netherlands, where married and had a little girl, but the European situation scared him and moved his family to the United States. Surprising his brother on a very short notice. Naturally, I perked up when the background of these characters were pointed out and the plot was littered with references to their past lives in the Netherlands, but their return also brought an additional complication to the plot: the late father of Carroll and George lost a "mythical nest egg" of at least four hundred thousand dollars and there's a mention of a collection of pictures he bought in 1927, which may have included a long-lost painting by Vermeer of Delft. Yes. There was one of those in the recently reviewed There's a Reason for Everything (1945) by E.R. Punshon.
Well, I guess it's time to make up the balance: Deadly Nightshade does not only setup a premise full of promise, but, on this occasion, delivered on it and the explanation for the plot was as original as its premise. I can easily see now why someone like Christie would be a fan of her work. Only drawbacks are Daly's feeble grasp on the concept of pacing (i.e. slow moving) and the sub-plot of the murdered state trooper was unnecessary. I think the story could have done without it, but Daly probably felt a detective story needed a clear-cut murder.
To make a long story short, I wish Deadly Nightshade had been my introduction to Daly's work instead of the seemingly never-ending and soul-deadening Murders in Volume 2.
Finally, allow me to draw your attention to the website of Les Blatt, Classic Mysteries, who is a fan of Daly and reviewed thirteen of her sixteen Henry Gamadge mysteries, which is how this series never left my peripheral field of view.