This was the second of four screwball mysteries featuring Emily and Henry Bryce, full-time husband-and-wife interior decorators and part-time amateur sleuths. After eleven months of marriage the volcanic Emily is already feeling that their life in New York is in a bit of a rut and craves adventure – which dutifully arrives in the shape of a work trip to London. An early highlight of the book details their stay at the Royal Rajah Hotel in an England still under the weight of austerity and rationing – the rooms are cold and cavernous, the food and service unspeakably awful and yet the well-off members of the Peel clan still stay there for the sake of tradition. And then there are Bonnie Prince Charlie’s trousers …
I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Colourful Crime’ category. I also submit it for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog – you should head over there right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.
“Who’s going to believe we’re flying to London to antique two cabinets for anything less than a duke?”
The Bryces are working on a spot of antiquing for the wealthy and urbane George Peel, an intelligent and agreeable sort (Henry calls him “an amiable chip off the old gentry”) who is furnishing a flat for Olivia, his insecure daughter, and her overbearing husband, Roy Palling (Henry calls him “about as sympathetic as internal revenue”). Then there is Peel’s cousin Ada, a formidable lady in her 80s (think something in between Lady Bracknell and Hildegarde Withers and you’re pretty much there) and family friend Marie Dennis, who it turns out has a crush on the beastly Roy. Peel’s decorator, Jerome, has arranged for the Bryces to be sent over by his New York counterpart, Vittorio, and it’s not long before we start wondering why such a complicated and expensive route has been taken just for a couple of cabinets. First there are a few misadventures at the hotel, such as when Emily’s shoes briefly go missing (only to return after surgery has been applied to the heels); and what about the Franz Joseph epaulets that Jerome asks the duo to take back to the US for Vittorio, which briefly also go mysteriously AWOL? Eventually the job is done and it is time for the Bryces to head home. As a thank you they are given what purport to a pair of plaid trousers actually worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie. In a surprise development, George, Emily, Roy and even Ada decide, apparently on the spur of the moment, to also fly to New York for a holiday on the same plane as the Bryces, to Emily’s delight and Henry’s displeasure. Something just doesn’t seem right …
“The look Emily gave him should have left nothing of Roy but a little dust to put in an urn”
After landing in New York Emily as usual takes charge and decides that all six of them should go visit their friend Link Simpson, who has a place out in the country. Ada immediately takes to the life in the States, especially falling in love with modern kitchen equipment. They are unexpectedly joined by Vittorio, which really makes Henry think that there is something strange going on, perhaps a smuggling connection with Roy, who is ever more disagreeable and takes some mysterious journeys out into the woods. The next morning Roy is discovered dead and barefoot next to the fireplace, his throat cut with an ornamental Toledo sword (Aunt Ada comments, “My, what a quantity of blood”) and one of his shoes at the bottom of Link’s swimming pool. Nobody seems too sorry about Roy’s violent demise (well, in the best Agatha Christie tradition he certainly seemed to be the one most deserving of getting bumped off) – not even his wife, who managed to sleep through the night strangely undisturbed despite the violent activity near her bedroom door; and certainly not his father-in-law George, a pleasant chap that Emily takes quite a shine to:
“He’s so cute you could put a gold chain on him and keep him for a pet”
But who did it? And what’s happened to Vittorio, who apparently drove off in the middle of the night? Could he be responsible, despite the fact that, as Harry says, “He is afraid of a rare steak”? Henry and Emily follow very much in the screwball style of such married amateur sleuths as Nick and Nora Charles, Jerry and Pam North (and Burns and Allen too!) – she is imperturbable but scatty and forever looking for trouble (and finding it) while Henry tries to look for the logic behind events. As the story unfolds she cooks some terrible meals and charms everyone she meets and gets coshed on the head in defence of the eponymous trousers, which get stolen and then found again at various points of the story. Henry on the other hand nearly gets poisoned for his more scientific sleuthing activities, which ultimately lead to mad dashes in and out of Bloomingdale’s and the New York Stock Exchange and handbags hiding pistols before the Bryces, with the unexpected aid of Scotland Yard, reveal whodunit.
“Cabdrivers were usually interested in taking Emily places. She was better than radio.””
The thrill is definitely in the chase with this book – by the time we get to the denouement, such as it is, its delivery proves to be perfectly acceptable in terms of plot but undeniably somewhat pedestrian and hurried, especially after all the hubbub that preceded it. Given the small number of suspects there can be no great surprise villain (and there isn’t), while Emily had more or less accurately guessed at the motive for the crime almost from the get-go. Also Scherf’s momentum is sometimes a bit haphazard – a couple of the middle chapters are incredibly long, slowing down proceedings just when they should be zipping at top speed – and, it has to be said, Emily’s enthusiasm can become a bit trying at times.. But there is much to enjoy in this carefree mystery, most especially Aunt Ada, who is a great comic creation. She invariably stops all and sundry stone dead with her put-downs and has a great reservoir of acidic aphorisms and assorted ‘mal mots’ as someone who sees, “a heavy cloud of stupidity hanging over the human race.” Shortly before her untimely death in 1979 (Scherf was killed by a drunk driver), she described her approach to crime writing:
” My theory is that mysteries appeal to people because the central problem is soluble, unlike most of the problems in the real world”
This book certainly lives up to that, buoyed by frothy comedy and never-say-die protagonists – great fun really and over much too soon.
The Henry and Emily Bryce mysteries, sadly there are only four of them, were originally published over a period of fifteen tears – all available from the Rue Morgue Press:
- The Gun in Daniel Webster’s Bust (1949)
- The Green Plaid Pants (1951)
- Glass on the Stairs (1954)
- The Diplomat and the Gold Piano (1964)
Tom and Enid Schantz’s detailed and engrossing profile of Margaret Scherf’s life and work can be found at the Rue Morgue website at: www.ruemorguepress.com/authors/scherf.html
This book was a gift from the redoubtable Bev Hankin, to whom I offer my humble and sincere thanks for this highly amusing romp. You can read her typically excellent review of this book over at her blog, My Reader’s Block, here.