THE GREEN PLAID PANTS (1951) by Margaret Scherf

Scherf-Green-Plaid-RueMorgueThis 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 Scherf-Diplomat-ccmisadventures 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”

Scherf-Gun-in-Daniel-Websters-Bust-rmpBut 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 Scherf-Glass-on-Stairs-rmpmomentum 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:

  1. The Gun in Daniel Webster’s Bust (1949)
  2. The Green Plaid Pants (1951)
  3. Glass on the Stairs (1954)
  4. 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.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, London, Margaret Scherf, New York, Rue Morgue Press, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to THE GREEN PLAID PANTS (1951) by Margaret Scherf

  1. Sergio – Oh, this sounds both engaging and amusing. I have to say that even the title got me. It really does sound like a fun read and I really ought to familiarise myself with this series. Thanks

  2. TracyK says:

    I have to admit the biggest pull for me is the skeletons on the book covers, especially the one by the circular staircase. I already have enough unread vintage mysteries from Rue Morgue Press on my stack, but I will definitely try one by this author eventually. Great overview, Sergio, and I am glad you included all those covers.

  3. Sergio, thanks to you, this is my first exposure to Margaret Scherf’s name and work. I enjoyed your review and the covers and will be keeping an eye out for all or any of the four Henry and Emily Bryce mysteries. Has she written anything else?

    • Hello Prashant – how are you doing? Scherf was a fairly prolific author, producing a book a year for nearly 40 years, including some aimed at younger readers (including a Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Wooden Lady, as by ‘Carolyn Keene’), which I have marked with an asterisk. Here main detective was The Rev Dr Martin Buell, who appeared in 7 books (I have put these in bold – there is a very useful guide to these online here) – here is a basic list:

      The Corpse Grows a Beard, 1940
      The Case of the Kippered Corpse, 1941
      They Came to Kill, 1942
      The Owl in the Cellar, 1945
      Always Murder a Friend, 1948
      Murder Makes Me Nervous, 1948
      Gilbert’s Last Toothache (aka For the Love of Murder), 1949
      The Gun in Daniel Webster’s Bust, 1949
      The Curious Custard Pie (aka Devine and Deadly), 1950
      The Secret of the Wooden Lady, 1950 * (as by Carolyn Keene)
      The Green Plaid Pants (aka The Corpse with One Shoe), 1951
      The Elk and the Evidence, 1952
      Dead: Senate Office Building (aka The Case of the Hated Senator), 1953
      Glass on the Stairs, 1954
      The Cautious Overshoes, 1956
      Judicial Body, 1957
      Never Turn Your Back, 1959
      Wedding Train, 1960
      The Mystery of the Velvet Box, 1963*
      The Diplomat and the Gold Piano, 1964
      The Corpse in the Flannel Nightgown, 1965
      The Secret of the Shaky Staircase, 1965*
      The Mystery of the Empty Trunk, 1966*
      The Banker’s Bones, 1968
      The Beautiful Birthday Cake, 1971
      To Cache a Millionaire, 1972
      If You Want a Murder Well Done, 1974
      Don’t Wake Me Up While I’m Driving, 1977
      The Beaded Banana, 1978

  4. I am doing good, Sergio, thanks very much, as well as for the list of books. I didn’t know she had written a Nancy Drew mystery though I know both this and the Hardy Boys series were ghostwritten by writers who, I believe, also included some fairly well-known names at the time. I couldn’t trace any of her books online where she’s as elusive as Georges Simenon.

    • Glad you are on the mend chum. Rue Morgue Press pubish the quartet of Bryce novels of course but I suspect that’s it beyond second hand copies. I haen’t tried to track down any of her other books either but certainly plan to (within the limits of affordability)

  5. Colin says:

    Another new author for me – perhaps I should just save that line to my clipboard and paste it in!
    This sounds like tremendous fun all round. I have a few Rue Morgue editions and I too think they do great work keeping writers such as this in print. Thanks for this.

    • Cheers Colin – well, yes, touche really as I seem to keep saying the same at Riding the High Country. I really enjoyed this one and as a fan of screwball mysteries it was pretty irresistible – and the contrast with early postwar Britain gives it a nice edge too.

      • Colin says:

        No criticism implied by the way, except of my own ignorance. I think it’s great you’re drawing attention to these books and writers that are, for me at least, less well known.
        I like books of this period quite a lot and I think that bleak post-war setting you describe makes for an excellent background.

        • Scherf is not an author I was particularly aware of – turns out that getting her books, apart from the Rue Morgue titles, is not especially easy either. There was such a boom in mystery fiction around that time that I always feel like I am behind the times as there is no hope of really getting a handle on it all – but it is nice to be spoiled for choice though!

  6. I’m with TracyK on those great skeleton covers! I really like the cover on THE GREEN PLAID PANTS! I’m sure I have a copy of that paperback edition of THE DIPLOMAT AND THE GOLD PIANO around here somewhere. I’ll have to dig it out and give it a read. Fine review!

    • Thanks very much George – the Gold Piano cover is also very attractive – shame there isn’t more of Scherf’s work readily available (well, here in the UK anyway).

  7. Todd Mason says:

    Sergio, have I directly recommended BEYOND BELIEF to you? The Nick and Nora Charles psychic investigators in spite of themselves radio drama pastiche? If not, I hope you can access this in that island nation, scepter’d as it is…

    http://www.nerdist.com/2012/11/thrilling-adventure-hour-96-beyond-belief-caped-fear/

    • Sounds great Todd – thanks very much indeed, I’m downloading as I speak!

      • Todd Mason says:

        I must admit, after hearing about twenty or so BEYOND BELIEF episodes (mixed in with the other essentially weekly THRILLING ADVENTURE HOUR series, usually a different series every week, with about one BEYOND BELIEF per month), I can’t remember how good this one is…but if this one doesn’t floor you, please try another before giving up…the average quality is high, but these in particular range from good to brilliant…

  8. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio–a wonderful review as always (I knew it would be…and I knew you wouldn’t be able to be “brief” :-) )! And thanks for the kind words. I just finished up The Diplomat & the Gold Piano. Not quite as good as this one, but still great fun.

    • Thank you Bev – and by jingo, it’s like James Clavell – he apparently started out thinking it was going to be a short novel but by the end … Thanks for the link as I’d missed the review. Thanks again, really enjoyed it.

  9. piero says:

    Sergio,
    I own a single novel by Margaret Scherf, The Owl in the Cellar, but I have not read it yet.
    Ti ho inviato una email. Mi dai poi una risposta?
    Grazie.
    P.

  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    This novel and the series as a whole sound like good, breezy fun, Sergio! I think Ms. Scherf was right on the money about why a lot of people enjoy mystery and detective novels, partly because they put order back into a disordered universe. Really enjoyed the review, mate, and will add those choice-looking Rue Morgue titles to my (ever increasing, thanks to you, John and others) “to buy” list.

    • Thank you for the kind words as always Jeff – it’s a new series for me too but it’s nice to have some good laughs occasionally even as the bodies pile up! Rue Morgue do seem to partially specialise in mirthful mysteries I think!

  11. le0pard13 says:

    BTW, I’ve nominated you for a Liebster Award, Sergio. No pressure to respond or take part, but wanted to let you know that I enjoy your writing.

  12. piero says:

    I’ve sent you an email too. Another. :-)

  13. Yvette says:

    Another new author for me as well, Sergio. She sounds like a lady who enjoyed life and had a great sense of humor. I enjoyed reading about this particular book and also the link you supplied to her bio. No surprise, I’m adding her name to my ever-expanding vintage list. :)

  14. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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