William and Audrey Roos were the husband-and-wife writing tandem, known as "Kelley Roos," who published a lamentably short series of lighthearted, fast-paced detective novels, novellas and short stories during the 1940s – starring their irresistible amateur sleuths, Jeff and Haila Troy. Kelley Roos and the Troys were largely forgotten, until the mid-2000s, when the Rue Morgue Press resurrected the series and became the gems of their catalog.
Why the Rooses and the Troys were so completely forgotten is somewhat of a mystery, because, as Tom and Enid Schantz wrote in their introduction, they were perhaps "a good deal better" than their more famous contemporaries.
The Troys were "funnier than the Norths, livelier than the Abbotts, often more involved in doing the actual detection than the Justuses" and "a more convincing couple than the Duluths." They were so entertaining, genuinely funny and easy to read, you almost overlook the well-crafted, structured and often fairly clued plots. There are two titles in the Rooses oeuvre that standout, The Frightened Stiff (1942) and Sailor, Take Warning! (1944), of which the former is an all-time personal favorite of mine. I rammed the book through a lot of throats a decade ago, but how well does it stand up to rereading? So after a few good to middling detective novels and one that left a lingering bad taste, I decided to finally take a second look at The Frightened Stiff.
The Frightened Stiff is the third novel in the series and the first one in which Jeff and Haila appear as a newlyweds, who moved to a garden level apartment of an old Greenwich Village brownstone on Thirty-Nine Gay Street, but nothing goes as planned and Haila's first lines of the story sets the tone of what's to come – "jumping from a window would bring no release" in a basement apartment. Charley, the little janitor, forgot to clean up the apartment and the thick, heavy cobwebs and dust mice could "grace a Class A haunted house." A telegram arrived to tell the Troys the moving van broke down and the delivery of their furniture is delayed, but the worst is yet to come.
Jeff and Haila Troy decided to grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant where Haila overhears a shady character talking, in a threatening tone, to someone in one of the phone booths. And to her shock, she hears the man tell the person on the other end of the line to meet him in the basement apartment of Thirty-Nine Gay Street! The incident triggers Jeff memory and remembers, to Haila's horror, that their apartment used to be a speakeasy where he wasted many happy hours of his boyhood. So he assumes the man is drunk and wants somebody to meet him at his old speakeasy, but when Jeff confronts the man with a good piece of advice, he gets hold of "the most frightened human being" he has ever seen.
Next morning, Haila is drummed out of bed by the police, because the body of a naked man had been spotted in their fenced-in garden and recognizes the body as the frightened man of the previous evening. The man is identified by the Troys' new neighbors as one of the motley tenants of the apartment building, Mike Kaufman, who tended to keep to himself. But things can always get worse. And they do.
Firstly, it turns out Kaufman had been drowned in Jeff and Haila's bathtub right before they returned home. Secondly, Lieutenant Hankins has his doubts about the Troys and suspects they might be up their necks in murder (technically correct). Jeff observes Hankins strikes him as "the type of cop that is wrong, but proves he's right." So they decide to once again don the proverbial deerstalker and poke around the private affairs of their new neighbors in an attempt to find the murderer.
The tenants of Thirty-Nine Gay Street include an old friend of Haila, Anne Carstairs, whose husband, Scott, is a struggling commercial artist with a secret. Why wasn't Anne glad to see Haila? Charlotte Griffin is a middle-aged lady who has to care for her invalid, bedridden sister, Lucy, who might have been out of bed and, "pressed snub-nosed against the glass," sized up the Troys when they arrived – her overprotective sister makes it difficult to get to speak with Lucy. Polly Franklin owns the restaurant where Haila overheard the telephone call and Henry Lingle is a retired art dealer. Lastly, there's the rabbity little landlord, Mr. Turner, and the previously mentioned janitor, Charley.
A pretty good pool of potential suspects to fish a murderer from, but The Frightened Stiff is not exactly a pure, straightforward whodunit and some of my fellow mystery fans have criticized the book for the apparent randomness of the murderer's identity. Patrick, of the dormant At the Scene of the Crime, said in his 2011 review that "there is literally nothing that points in X's direction as the culprit," which was echoed more recently by The Green Capsule and The Bedford Bookshelf. So I kept this mind when rereading The Frightened Stiff and kind of have to disagree with them.
Yes, the clueing here is a little unconventional, devious, but unconventional with only one clue, or hint, pointing directly towards the murderer. However, you can still identify the murderer as Jeff and Haila begin to find answers to who Kaufman really was and start tying up all the plot-threads concerning the other tenants. Once you arrived at the final couple of chapters, there's only one character left standing who fits the role of murderer. So, yes, it's more a process of elimination rather than deduction, but you can still identify [REDACTED] before the name is revealed in the last line of the penultimate chapter and it didn't feel like it had been drawn from a hat or could have been substituted by any of the other characters – which wouldn't have made a lick of sense. If there's anything to complain about, it's that the Rooses played it very safe with their choice of murderer.
Anyway, I didn't think the murderer was randomly picked or unfairly hidden from the reader, but the who's not the only bone of contention some readers have with The Frightened Stiff.
There's a quasi-impossible, almost locked room-like aspect to the murder that nobody can't quite agree on whether, or not, it qualifies as an impossible situation. When the police go to inspect Kaufman's apartment, they're make the startling discovery that there was "not a stick of furniture" or "a scrap of paper" in the apartment. The place had been furnished the day before and Kaufman was heard turning on the radio, but how could the apartment been cleaned out without any of tenants seeing it or hearing it? The bedroom door of Jeff and Haila was practically at the foot of the main staircase. So how could the content of a whole apartment vanish without trace or sound? I can only describe quasi-impossible problem as Schrödinger's locked room. Technically, it's a locked room when you don't look to closely at it or don't notice that it actually qualifies (somewhat) as a locked room, but (sort of) stops being one the moment you take notice of it. You can put this down to the setting and circumstances of the vanishing furniture leaving room for only one logical explanation, which is why I didn't identify it as a (quasi) impossible crime on my first read, but the clueing of the furniture plot-thread was original and first-class – dovetailing beautifully with the rest of the plot and story. I also found impressive that with only one possible explanation, Hankins came up with another solution that would have been plausible enough had it not made the Troys his prime suspects.
Tom and Enid Schantz ended their introduction to their reprint editions stating that you won't find the name Kelley Roos "among the giants of genre," but their spirited contributions to, what John Dickson Carr called, the Grandest Game "deserve not to be overlooked" as they showed "what it was like to be young and in love in the New York of the 1940s" – more importantly that "mysteries were meant to be fun." A perfect summation of The Frightened Stiff. A genuinely funny, solidly plotted detective novel full with humorous, good-natured banter and a devious criminal scheme at the heart of the story, which ensured the many twists and turns that had to be smoothed out along the way. While not everything was perfectly executed, The Frightened Stiff towers over its screwball contemporaries of the murder-can-be-fun school and more than stood up to rereading. Highly recommended!