In The Spotlight: Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The New England coast has been a summer haven for New Yorkers and Bostonians for a very long time. In the days before air conditioning, anyone who could escape the city’s heat and humidity for the summer did so. That’s how the tradition of summer stock theatre started. Even today there are well-regarded theatre groups that present summer plays and musicals in different places on New England’s coast. They’re good opportunities for young people who want theatre careers but need some experience before they go to New York. Let’s take a closer look today at life on the Maine coast during the summer stock season and turn the spotlight on Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which introduces her sleuth Henry Gamadge, an author and rare book expert.

Gamadge is staying at the Ocean House resort at Ford’s Beach, Maine. There he’s made friends with Colonel Harrison Barclay, his wife Lulu and their son Frederic, who are staying in a nearby cottage. The Barclays are soon joined in Ford’s Beach by Lulu Barclay’s sister-in-law Eleanor Cowden, her son and daughter Amberley and Alma, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson.

As Gamadge soon learns, Amberley Cowden stands to inherit a fortune from a deceased aunt once he reaches the age of twenty-one. But there’s a good chance he won’t live that long as he has a serious heart condition that has practically incapacitated him. Still, Cowden is determined to go to Ford’s Beach because he’s interested in the theatre and wants to financially support his cousin Arthur Atwood, who has a theatre group in nearby Seal Cove. He and his family arrive in the last hour before he actually turns twenty-one and everyone settles into the Ocean House resort. The next morning, Amberley Cowden’s body is found at the bottom of a nearby cliff and police detective Mitchell is assigned to the case. The easiest explanation is that Cowden died of a fatal heart attack. But there are soon questions about that finding. What was he doing out in the middle of the night at a cliff? Since he died just after inheriting a great deal of money, in whose interest is it for his heart failure to happen so conveniently?

Each in a different way, Mitchell and Gamadge begin to ask questions about the death. Then there’s another death, this time of Adrienne Lake, a member of the Seal Cove theatre company. And then there’s another death. As if that weren’t enough, there are two attempts on Alma Cowden’s life. Now Mitchell and Gamadge have to work quickly if they’re going to find out who’s responsible for the murders and the threats to Alma Cowden. In the end, it’s Gamadge’s knowledge of handwriting and paper that gives the most important clue as what really happened on the night of Amberley Cowden’s death, and who is responsible for the other events.

This is a Golden-Age mystery and in many ways it reflects that era’s detective fiction traditions. There’s a group of suspects, a hotly-contested fortune, issues around a will, and an ingénue caught up in it all. This isn’t an ‘impossible’ mystery, but the solution to it is complicated as only a Golden Age solution can be. Still, the solution is believable and so are the motives for everything that happens. And Daly ‘plays fair.’ The reader (well, this one anyway) doesn’t end up thinking, ‘Well if I’d known that I could have figured it all out.’

One of the very strong elements in this novel is the Maine coast setting:

 

‘He [Mitchell] glanced out at the peaceful view before him; cottages and ocean to the right, pines to the north, rolling golf course to the west.’

 

We also get a look at the lifestyle of the summer visitors, the summer stock theatre people and the locals of that time (the book was originally published in 1940). The novel evokes a time when many people didn’t have telephones, most people smoked, errand boys were common and cars had rumble seats. Since the Cowdens and Gamadge are all staying at the Ocean Front, we also get a look at summer resort life of that era. There’s a luxury golf course, bellhops, porters, all sorts of room service – and no card keys.

Another strong element in this novel is the relationship between Mitchell and Gamadge. At first Mitchell simply wants Gamadge’s perspective as a friend of both the Barclays and the Cowdens. He’s hoping Gamadge will give him some insight as to what the family history is like, what the people are like, and why Amberley Cowden would have gone out late at night to a cliff. But as the story evolves, Mitchell sees that Gamadge has solid intuition and is often quite good at getting people to talk when they might not be so willing to talk to the police. For his part, Gamadge doesn’t try to ‘play cop.’ He has his own ways of going about getting answers, but he lets the police do their jobs. And he sees that Mitchell is both smart and shrewd and can put two and two together as the saying goes as well as anyone.  Daly is to be credited for not falling into the all-too-easy trap of presenting the police as buffoons who need to be saved from themselves by the oh-so-smart amateur sleuth.

And as a sleuth, Henry Gamadge is a likeable character. We don’t know much about his personal life, as Daly doesn’t explore the characters in great depth. But he is interesting. As a rare book expert, he’s familiar with all sorts of different kinds of paper, ink and types of writing. He isn’t a superhero, but he is observant and he’s a creative thinker. In fact it’s Gamadge’s ability to think ‘outside the box’ that gives him a very helpful way of looking at this case. We can also see that he has a compassionate side. For instance, once it seems that Alma Cowden is in danger, Gamadge does quite a lot to try to keep her safe. He also works hard to ensure that the families involved in this case aren’t badgered by reporters.

Unexpected Night is an intellectual puzzler more than it is a character study, so readers who prefer psychological mysteries will be disappointed. But Daly offers the reader a challenging case with a believable pair of sleuths, all set in a beautiful and distinctive context. But what’s your view? Have you read Unexpected Night? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 25 February/Tuesday 26 February – Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler

Monday 4 March/Tuesday 5 March – House Report – Deborah Nicholson

Monday 11 March/Tuesday 12 March – The Rage – Gene Kerrigan

27 Comments

Filed under Elizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night

27 responses to “In The Spotlight: Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night

  1. Margot, I am so glad you reviewed one of Daly’s books. As you say, “Unexpected Night” was the first of her mysteries, introducing Henry Gamadge, and I must say that I prefer some of the later ones in the series, when his character and some of the other regulars are better developed. Elizabeth Daly is said to have been Agatha Christie’s favorite American author, and I think anyone who reads these novels will see why. Her plots are full of marvelous twists, but they are quite fair with the reader. She also has a quiet and dry sense of humor, which is always a plus, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for introducing Gamadge!

    • Les – I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. As you say, Gamadge’s character is better developed in later novels, and the other ‘regulars’ in the series are established. But this one lays the groundwork. I think you’re quite right too about Daly’s dry wit. It’s perhaps not quite as apparent here as it is later, but it is there. I like Daly’s puzzles too. Fair but most definitely not obvious. Yes, it’s not hard at all to see why Agatha Christie liked Daly’s work.

      • Margot, I thought you and your readers might enjoy the following “bio” of Henry Gamadge, written by Elizabeth Daly (probably in 1946, as she refers to “ten cases” involving Gamadge) and currently appearing on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki:

        “In 1904, Henry Gamadge was born in the family home in the East Sixties of New York City. His father and grandfather had both been interested in rare books and Henry himself was ‘steeped in books from infancy’. By 1939, after the usual proper schooling for one of his background, he was drawn by circumstances into what he calls ‘a sideline with a puzzle interest’. This, of course, refers to his detective work in which he has to date ‘participated’ in ten cases. He married Clara Dawson in 1940 and has one son, born in 1943. His hobbies and recreations are bridge, golf, music (as a listener) and — he insists — the conservation of the transitive verb. He says he has no pets. ‘That yellow object that you see rolling among my papers, my cat Martin, is not a pet. He merely came and stayed. You might call him local colour, or you might call him my Familiar.’ During the war he worked here and in Europe for Counter-Intelligence. When asked what he did, he says he flew around.”

        • Les – Many thanks for sharing this. It’s always interesting to find out a little more about a sleuth, especially if we find out how the author imagines him. This is really fascinating!

  2. I agree, I am glad you featured this book by Elizabeth Daly. She is one of my favorite Golden Age authors, but I have not read any of her books in years. She wrote 16 in the Henry Gamadge series (I think), and only have 3 or 4 that I have not read. I should read one this year for the Vintage Mystery challenge.

    • Tracy – She is terrific, isn’t she? And what’s interesting is that she didn’t get started on her career as a writer until later in life. I think she’d be great for the Vintage Mystery challenge.

  3. I have picked up a few of her books along the way (they weren’t well-known in the UK, or widely available) and I read them then, but I have to go and check on my shelves to see which ones I have!

    • Moira – Interesting isn’t it how some authors do and some don’t get widely known in other countries. I’d love to see what you’d do with one of them as a focus of one of your great blog posts.

  4. I think three of us have blogged in the last two weeks on Daly. I plan to do so again. Another thing that impresses me about her is how she can get some much story into what really are rather short novels.

    • Curtis – You’re right; there’ve been several posts about Daly’s work and I’ll look forward to your next one. And you know, I hadn’t mentioned that Daly’s novels are short but they are, particularly by today’s standards. One admires her ability to include a solid story in a short novel.

  5. Daly isn’t a writer I have come across, but I’m in the UK and when I was breaking my reading teeth on crime many years ago, it was all Agatha Christie I’m afraid.

    • Rebecca – No need to apologise for starting out with Agatha Christie. Few are her equal in the crime writing world. And let’s face it; there are so many highly talented writers and well-written books out there that there’s no way to read them all.

  6. I haven’t read any Elizabeth Daly either but she sounds good fun and I love the idea of the New England setting. I’ve just read a couple of Frances Crane books, and although I’m new to the writer I absolutely love them. The US had some gems for writers in its Golden Age.

    • Sarah – Oh, now you’ve reminded me that I must read some Frances Crane. You’re not the first to say that they’re excellent. Interesting isn’t it how there was so much talent simultaneously during the Golden Age. I’ll have to think about what it was about the Golden Age that brought out such a lot of fine writing.

    • Sarah has mentioned a Golden Age writer I am not familiar with at all. I will have to look for some of her books. Which have you read, Sarah?

      • Hi Tracy – I read ‘The Golden Box’ and ‘Thirteen White Tulips’. They feature a detective called Pat Abbott and his wife Jean. I thought they were excellent and I’m doing a review on them at the end of this week. I’m definitely going to read some more.

        • Eagerly awaiting the review. (Like I need a new author, even a Golden Age one.)

        • FYI, the Rue Morgue Press has been republishing a number of the Pat and Jean Abbott books by Frances Crane. I just reviewed “The Indigo Necklace” a couple of weeks ago – set in New Orleans and quite well done. There are 26 books in the series, so there’s some SERIOUS reading to be done… ;-)

        • Les – Thanks for the information. I’m always happy when a publishing house decides to bring back a solid classic series like Crane’s work. Folks, do check out Les’ terrific review of The Indigo Necklace.

        • I had seen the Rue Morgue editions and read some about the author there… after I read Sarah’s comments. The few I looked at, I noted that they each had a different setting… which seems like a bonus. I would like to get old paperback editions if available. Later today I will go check out Les’s review. Thanks to all for all this info.

        • Tracy – I’m so glad you found some useful information! That’s one thing I love about all you folks – you’re all such wonderful resources.

  7. I really should read this particular book. In my years living in Maine summer theater was one of the great joys of my life. We got married by the ocean in Ogunquit, ME which has the best professional summer theater of all. An audience full of people in their best (and coolest) summer clothing, and wonderful actors in a lovely setting. I have good memories.

    • Barbara – Oh, it does sound as though you had a truly lovely wedding. And yes, summer theatre in Maine has such an excellent reputation and tradition. In this novel, we see one of the -er – less-well-funded theatre groups and I rather like that, since it’s a good reminder that theatre is hard work and usually not at all glamourous. But it is driven by passion. I hope you’ll get the chance to read this novel; it’s a good ‘un, I think.

  8. Read a lot of her books back in the day but had completely forgotten her. Thanks for resurrecting.

    • Patti – I’m always surprised at how many authors we read and then just forget about, no matter how much we liked them. Glad I reminded you of an author whose work you liked.

  9. This is definitely a book that interests me, Margot, especially for the setting. I’ve only read one Daly book in my life (I know, what’s wrong with me?!) but this one sounds like a title I must add to my Vintage Master List. Thanks for a terrific review.

    • Yvette – Oh, don’t feel bad. I’d be ashamed to publicly admit how many fine classic/vintage authors I haven’t read. This one really is a solid one I think. As Les points out, Henry Gamadge comes into his own later in the series. but there’s no doubt that Daly shows the promise of this series here. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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