"This dance of death which sounds so musically,was sure intended for the corpse de ballet."- Anonymous (On the Danse Macabre of Saint-Saëns)
Last week, Mike of Only Detect and "JJ" of The Invisible Event posted reviews of, respectively, The Frightened Stiff (1942) and Sailor, Take Warning! (1944), which came from the hands of a criminally underrated pair of mystery novelists, William and Audrey Roos – who published their work under the shared penname of "Kelley Roos." I rank their high-spirited, comedic detective stories among my personal favorites and the aforementioned reviews were a reminder there still was one of their novels on my TBR-pile. A particular title I had been saving for a while.
The Blonde Died Dancing (1956) is an expansion of a 1948 novella, entitled "Dancing Death," which was originally published in American Magazine and featured their beloved series-character, Jeff and Haila Troy. However, the couple from the novel-length version were given different names, Steve and Connie Barton, but they're carbon copies of the original. You can easily see they act as stand-ins for the Troys.
Steve and Connie Barton have a similar penchant for attracting copious amounts of trouble, while bantering and wandering into unlikely situations, but they also might be separate characters who inhabit the same universe as the Troys – because both appear to be acquainted with Lt. George Hankins of the Homicide Squad. It could mean they're either a thinly disguised version of the Troys or there are two of such meddlesome, trouble-prone couples running amok in New York.
The problems in The Blonde Died Dancing begins with Connie worrying about the state of her marriage. Every Wednesday, Steve "had dreamed up a reason to be away for the evening," but the pile of excuses are as transparent as a broken window pane. So, after a thorough makeover failed to keep him home on another Wednesday evening, Connie decided to tail her husband to the fourteenth floor of an office building and there she makes a startling discovery: her husband is secretly taking dancing lessons! The place is called the Crescent School of Dancing and Steve is being taught how to waltz by "a tall, willowy and ravishing female" named Anita Farrell. But moments later another headache of a problem presented itself to Connie.
After Steve finished his lesson for the evening and left, Connie entered the music-filled Studio K to meet her husband's dance teacher, but what she found was her body sprawled grotesquely on the smooth, shining floor – a bullet hole in her back. She was grasping "a small, curiously shaped piece of heavy paper" in one hand. There is, however, one problem: she had entered the studio right after Steve had left it. Nobody else had entered the room. There were no concealed doors, camouflaged windows or hidden crevices behind the mirrored walls, which means the shooter could only have been Steve!
You guessed it! The Blonde Died Dancing is a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery and one of the reasons why I stored this away for a cold, wintry day.
Anyway, Connie is shocked and confused, but has sense enough to snatch the registry from the reception desk, which lists Steve as Farrell's last pupil, before hightailing out of there. However, this only slows down Lieutenant-Detective Bolling and Lieutenant Hankins. They're working on a clever process of elimination based on the lists of students. A process that will, eventually, reveal the last pupil and prime suspect in the slaying of the dance teacher – referred to by the sensationalist press as "The Waltzer."
I've to make one observation here: the registry noted that Steve's appointment took place between seven and eight. Steve mentioned he known his teacher for a total of nine hours. So he has been taking lessons for nine weeks, right? But absolutely nobody at the school, without the registry, remembered who was getting dance lessons at that fixed time for the past two months? And it was in the murderers best interest to remember who this pupil was.
This is an obvious weak spot in the plot. A weakness that was necessary to propel the plot forward, which happens when Connie returns to the dance school to get a job as Farrell's replacement. As the pseudonymous "Hester Frost," she uncovers hidden relationships, a blackmail racket and how an outside murderer could have penetrated the watched and closed studio, but there's also a great deal of lighthearted humor in getting identity under wraps – such as trying to avoid the police-detectives who know the new teacher by her real name. But that's not the only close shave she got and all of this makes for a pleasantly paced, humorous read.
Undoubtedly, the lighthearted, cheerful nature of the storytelling is the most attractive aspect of The Blonde Died Dancing. However, this is not to say that the plot is bad, which is not the case, but rather simplistic and will not pose a serious challenge to the experienced armchair detective. You can almost instinctively figure out how the murder was accomplished based on the black paper figure in the victim's hand and the nature of the bullet wound. Something that's confirmed when Connie stumbles across the means of the locked room trick, long before grasping how it fully worked, but, when she does, the reader is treated to a nice set-piece in the murder room. The who-and why were a bit more tricky, but not something that broke new ground or surprisingly pulled the rug from underneath the reader.
Nevertheless, The Blonde Died Dancing is a very fun and energetic detective novel, which harked back to the early mysteries by Roos. The plot never reaches the height of their best novels (i.e. The Frightened Stiff and Sailor, Take Warning!), but the attempt will be appreciated by readers who enjoyed their other work.
A note for the curious: The Blonde Died Dancing formed the basis for a French-Italian movie, Come Dance With Me (1959), starring Brigitte Bardot.