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