Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) by Brett Halliday

Last time, I reviewed a juvenile detective novel by Enid Blyton, The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944), that confronted the Find-Outers with the apparently impossible theft of the titular, prize-winning Siamese cat and gave me the idea to pick the subject of today's review as my next read – as it's an interesting contrast to Blyton's children's detective fiction. A hardboiled, tough-guy 1944 locked room mystery obviously not intended to be read by 8-12 year old's. 

"Brett Halliday" was the pseudonym of an American writer, Davis Dresser, who was married to the well-known mystery novelist Helen McCloy and together they ran a literary agency called Halliday and McCloy. They also founded the Torquil Publishing Company, but Halliday is best-known as the creator and first writer of the Michael "Mike" Shayne series. A hardboiled counterpart to Ellery Queen complete with different series-periods (Miami and New Orleans), ghost writers and a short fiction magazine (Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine).

Mike Shayne is seen by knowledgeable, better informed readers as "one of the most popular private detectives ever," whose cases are "generally very well plotted and pleasantly complex," but the earlier books have been called "surprisingly traditional" in nature – something that doesn't really surprise me anymore. The tough-guy private eye school is supposed to be the antithesis to my beloved, plot-driven detective stories of ratiocination, which is not entirely untrue. But my experience is that a lot of them were excellent plotters and either tried their hands at the locked room mystery or even made it a specialty. Just look under the "Private Eyes" tag. 

Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) is the tenth novel in the Mike Shayne and Kate, of Cross Examining Crime, picked it as one of her recommendations to locked room enthusiasts based on the reviews in The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47 (2001-09). Anthony Boucher praised the "clever locked-room murder method" and "typical Halliday hard-paced action." So let's see what this series is all about. 

Murder and the Married Virgin takes place shortly after Shayne moved from Miami to New Orleans and setup shop in two-room suite, on the fourth floor of the International Building, with a brand new secretary, Lucy Hamilton – who apparently played a role in a previous novel. From what I gathered, Lucy is the Nikki Porter of the series, but with more character consistency. Anyway, Shayne gets two different cases on his desk that conveniently took place under the roof of the same household.

Firstly, a Mr. Teton, of Mutual Indemnity, hires Shayne to recover an emerald necklace that had been insured for $125000, but, in the present gem-market, "the necklace would easily bring two hundred thousand." The necklace, belonging to a Mrs. Lomax, was presumed stolen during a burglary and was supposed to be in the bedroom safe, which the burglar didn't touch. That's why nobody missed the necklace until the day their maid committed suicide in her locked, third-floor bedroom. Katrin Moe was a Norwegian immigrant engaged to be married to a young army lieutenant, Ted Drinkley, who, dazed and broken down, turns to Shayne. He wants to know why she committed suicide the day before their marriage. Or was she perhaps murdered? And how?

Shayne remarks that "Philo Vance might be able to sort out the truth from the lies, but I'll be damned if I can." However, he does a decent job in tangling with the locked room problem with no less than two false-solutions. Shayne spots the possibility of an old-dodge and pieces together a technical, but not uninspired, false-solution which accounts for both the locked door and why Katrin appeared to welcome death with "outflung arms and a smile." The actual locked room-trick achieves the same effect, but is a bit cruder in execution and not as fairly clued. Regardless, these locked room bits and pieces were, too me, the highlight of the story.

But in every other regard, Murder and the Married Virgin is a seedy, hardboiled private-eye novel and Shayne has to through the whole shebang to tie the stolen necklace to an impossible murder. There's the dysfunctional Lomax family made up of "an old man married to a wife with young ideas" with a stone-cold, perpetual bored daughter, a wannabee playboy son and a chauffeur with movie-star looks – not to mention a dead maid. He also has to tangle with a troublesome dame, a shady club owner and armed torpedoes, which comes with the customary whack to the back of the head and "a murder frame" around his neck.

Shayne has to do a lot of talking, thinking and downright dirty work to get himself out of a very tight spot. Such paying for "witnesses" to place a certain someone at the scene of a murder, which disgusts Lucy to the point where she's ready to walk out on Shayne ("...I thought you were decent"). Funnily enough, I picked Murder and the Married Virgin as a simple contrast to a children's (locked room) mystery novel from the same year, but both stories have their detectives seriously tampering with evidence. One of them was done out of mischievous, child-like innocence, while the other was the result of adult cynicism in a dog-eat-dog world ("scruples are something the boys write about in detective novels"). So incredibly different, and yet, I can't help but see a family resemblance.

My sole complaint is that the ending felt a little like fiddling with a combination lock, trying different combinations with the known numbers, but other than that, it's a solid, fast-paced private eye novel and a notable example of the hardboiled locked room mystery. So the other three Halliday novels on my big pile will be moved up a few places.


  1. I was dimly aware of this, and dimply aware that it might not be one to rush out and find...and it sounds like those impressions weren't far off. It's always fun to see the impossible crime melded with atypical genres -- look at Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan, about which we both get rather excited -- but if the book and problem themselves don't meet a certain standard, an impossible crime ain't gonna save it.

    So, well, I'll keep a weather eye out for this one, but I'll perhaps look elsewhere first, second, third, and fourth in the hope of finding something neither of us have read that's a little more worthy of enthusiasm.

    1. I'm not saying Brett Halliday was the hardboiled John Dickson Carr, but Murder and the Married Virgin fared much better as a "tough guy" locked room mystery than, let's say, Stephen Brett's Some Die Hard, John B. Ethan's The Black Gold Murders and Jonathan Latimer's The Dead Don't Care. He was more like a proto-Bill Pronzini. And, if that isn't tempting enough for you, Robert Arthur wrote a few short stories under the Halliday name. Such as the promising-sounding "Death Dives Deep."

      "...in the hope of finding something neither of us have read that's a little more worthy of enthusiasm."

      I'm eagerly looking forward to your next installment of "A Little Help for My Friends." :)

  2. I've only ever read one of the Mike Shayne books but I quite enjoyed it. But then I'm quite fond of the hardboiled school (which I certainly prefer to the Psychological Crime Novel school). I'm definitely tempted to add Murder and the Married Virgin to my shopping list.

    And I agree that the hardboiled writers weren't quite as indifferent to plotting as some GAD fans seems to think.

    1. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler sort of set the tone and something critics love to hammer on about, but beyond those two giants, there were (and are) many hardboiled writers who appreciated a good, solid puzzle plot. Not always to the same extant or complexity as their GAD counterparts, of course. But a lighter touch to the plotting fits the hardboiled private eye like a well-worn trench coat.

      Anyway, I hope you enjoy Murder and the Married Virgin.

    2. I agree. There were writers who wrote hardboiled detective stories which are still actual detective stories, with actual detection. And there were writers who wrote hardboiled crime novels, with little or no interest in plotting. Edward Anderson, James M. Cain, and to some extent Hammett, etc. Critics much prefer the latter and they often ignore the former.

  3. The title did ring a bell when I saw it in my email box. Bit nervous when I saw it was a book I vicariously recommended via Boucher, but glad it had enough good stuff in it to make it a worthwhile read.

    1. I always take note and jot down recommendations from my fellow fans for future reference. Not only had this one more than enough to make it worthwhile, but have discovered at least one other locked room title by Halliday not listed in either Adey or Skupin. So thanks for the recommendation!