THE BIRTHDAY MURDER (1945) by Lange Lewis

Lewis_Birthday-Murders_perennialGreatly admired by Barzun and Taylor, this sharply observed and elegantly phrased whodunit is set in the Hollywood movie colony at the height of its Golden Age. Its protagonist is Victoria, a successful screenwriter and novelist (and soon-to-be playwright) whose new husband is poised to break into the big time by producing a screen adaptation of one of her books. As she prepares for her thirty-fifth birthday, various crises, major and minor, start to appear before a murder styled after one in her book hits very close to home …

I submit the following review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“It was one of those pretentious white stucco places called ‘Chateau This’ and ‘Villa That’ that rear themselves proudly against the backdrop of the low hills above Hollywood”

Victoria Jason is emancipated, successful and wealthy (she lives opposite Humphrey Bogart) and very much a self-made woman. Not a raving beauty perhaps (as she keeps being told, but then she does live in Hollywood …) but talented, creative and highly intelligent, with an almost forensic ability to see through people. She was married briefly and unhappily once before to a would-be writer and has recently wed again, this time to up-and-coming producer Albert Hime (yes, Lewis presumably had a vaguely royal notion in her head when she named her protagonists Victoria and Albert …). He recently made a success of a low-budget but stylish horror movie (in the fashion of Val Lewton’s Cat People), with her help. After their marriage he moved into her house and lived in the spare room on the understanding that work would always come first in the marriage. One evening, on the eve of her birthday, she has visits from young starlet Moira, who wants to play the lead in the adaptation of Victoria’s Ina Hart, the story of a woman who poisons her husband. But Victoria says she is far too young and immature for the part. Then Victoria’s oldest friend Beatrix turns up in a turmoil as her husband has discovered she has been having her affair. As usual, Victoria tells her what she really thinks and upsets her friend. Then Victoria’s ex-husband, the bizarrely named Sawn, turns up after an absence of ten years, clearly still hankering after her, not having realised she had remarried. That evening Victoria and Albert settle down for a meal and a coffee – the next morning she wakes up and discovers he has been killed with ant poison, just like in her novel. Enter the massive Inspector Tuck …

“IT IS NOT OVER YET. YOU ARE GOING TO SUFFER NOW”

Lewis-Birthday-Murder-dellThis is a book that with its small cast of suspects and obsessive detail about how the poison could have got in the coffee that killed Albert is highly reminiscent of Agatha Christie, though the acute character psychology is one we might more readily associate with the later work of Margaret Millar, while the lucid prose certainly ranks with the best of Sayers. And yet, despite the decent little mystery at its heart, this mostly reminds me of the early books of Allingham and Marsh in that the main interest is in the people and the milieu and not the crime. In fact once Tuck arrives the proceedings tend to get rather bogged down – but this isn’t too big a problem as Victoria is the true protagonist here and dominates the book.

“Hollywood is no longer a place of ermine toilet-seat covers and flagrant sin.”

Despite the approval of Barzun and Taylor, you won’t find Lange Lewis’ name in any of the standard reference works on crime and mystery (Symons, Pronzini, DeAndrea, Murphy etc) and it was only thanks to the superior expertise of the great John F Norris of Pretty Sinister Books that I learned of her work. Lewis was the pseudonym of Jane Lewis Brandt (1915-2003), who  also wrote as ‘Jane Beynon’ and who, at the time, was married to sometime pulp author Mal Bissell (for further details, see the profile by Terence E. Hanley published here). The novel, though written during the war, has a slightly modern edge (it uses words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘virgin’ for instance) and Ed Gorman has written knowledgeably on this book, comparing Lewis’ work in The Birthday Murder very favourably with Raymond Chandler, which I understand but don’t quite share. The plot is that of an old-fashioned cosy and doesn’t always sit well with the fine character studies. But it is very well written, the main protagonist very well drawn – it loses points maybe because the detective element is not as well integrated as it could be, but this is a superior mystery all the same and well worth a look.

The Lieutenant Richard “The Moose” Tuck series

  • Murder Among Friends (1942)
  • Juliet Dies Twice (1943)
  • Meat for Murder (1943)
  • The Birthday Murder (1945)
  • The Passionate Victim (1952)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘food’ category as the whole plot revolved around a bowl of sugar:

 

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

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41 Responses to THE BIRTHDAY MURDER (1945) by Lange Lewis

  1. Sergio – Trust you to suggest an interesting little mystery from an author whose work I’ve not (yet) tried. It sounds like an eminently readable story and although I know what you mean about the focus being away from the crime itself, it does sound like a solid story.

  2. Curtis Evans says:

    Do you know, I have all her books and have not read one. Barzun chose this one for his 100 Crime Fiction Classics series and I have that edition. Her first book came out the same month as Margaret Millar’s The Devil Loves Me. Emma Lou Fetta used the word “lesbian” six years earlier, in her Murder in Style. Looks like bloggers have left two books by her to review, I’ll have to get on that!

  3. neer says:

    Sergio, this seems like a forgotten book that ought to be rediscovered. Thanks a lot for the review.

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I read this one just shortly before starting up my blog (so, sadly, no review). It had been on my “To Be Found” list for a long time and I was glad I enjoyed it so much once I got my hands on it.

    AND…you’ve almost got a Bingo!

  5. TracyK says:

    This sounds great and I have to look for that Dell Mapback edition. The author is totally new to me.

  6. Sergio, the two covers are in stark contrast, one suggesting a cosy mystery (as you mention) and the other a hardboiled mystery, a more striking cover I’d have no hesitation in picking up. For me Lange Lewis counts as an author I have never heard of and clearly overlooked in spite of the fact that she appears to have written a fair number of novels. Good choice, Sergio.

  7. I’ve got the Barzun edition , but haven’t read it – duly promoted on my readinglist

  8. Todd Mason says:

    Sounds like a nice companion to Waugh’s THE LOVED ONE, as well!

  9. Colin says:

    Completely new to me, as others have said. I do like the sound of the Hollywood setting – I enjoyed the Queen novels set there, especially The Four of Hearts – as there are generally interesting references to look for.

    • Thanks Colin – this one is much, much better than average but is mostly a terrific character study with a Christie style puzzle thrown in – it is very impressive. Doesn;t quite get the balancing act right for me, as I say, but this is just a question of degree – really worth a read. And I just like the fact that the protagoniost lices opposite Humphrey Bogart!

  10. Completely new to me too, and I have already ordered a copy – it sounds like a must-read, just the kind of thing I like. One of the reprint houses should get hold of it, or make an ebook from it.

  11. curtis evans says:

    Those Harper reprints, by the way, were inspired by Barzun and Taylor’s Catalogue of Crime (you may have noticed how so many of the reprints are books they praised). Such a wonderful series, the closest thing to it today I suppose is Mysterious Press’ Kindle series.

  12. I have a number of those Harper reprints. Barzun and Taylor’s CATALOGUE OF CRIME brought several crime classic back into print. I’m committed to paper, too. But I do read some e-books on my iPad. It’s not quite the same.

  13. John says:

    I’m surprised that more people don’t know about Lewis. That Harper Perrenial paperback reprint is very easy to find on both sides of the Atlantic. All the other titles — especially THE PASSIONATE VICTIMS — are more difficult to come across. So glad you had a chance to sample Lewis.

  14. John says:

    I’m having big problems trying leave a comment today. One more time…

    Thanks for the plug, Sergio. I wouldn’t call anything I do superior but then of course I have a huge inferiority complex. Thanks for the compliments all the same.

    Anyone interested in reading more about Lange Lewis might want to visit the blog of our resident locked room/impossible crime enthusiast TomCat. A couple of years ago he reviewed MEAT FOR MURDER. His blog is called Beneath the Stains of Time. Then jsut type Lange Lewis in the search box. Just click here

    (I wanted to include the URL but I think that’s what prevneitng the comment from appearing)

  15. Yvette says:

    Sergio I thought I’d read this, the title is awfully familiar. And then there’s the paperback which I believe I have tucked away somewhere. BUT – your synopsis rings no bells. Hmmmm. Could there be another book with the same title or am I suffering yet again from another attack of selective amnesia? Time to hunt the book down – Over the weekend I’m determined to sort out the shelves of paperbacks which are gathering dust in my laundry room. Let’s see what I come up with.

    In the meantime, thanks again for yet another engaging review.

  16. Richard says:

    The title sounds familiar to me, too, but not the author. Probably another mystery out there with the same title, but I’m too lazy this morning to look it up.

  17. curtis evans says:

    Gosh, only one Lange Lewis has been left unreviewed then! I’m late to the birthday party. Maybe I should just start all over from the beginning and do a review of all her work. Great job by our bloggers, as ever.

  18. Santosh Iyer says:

    The book seems to be out of print. At amazon.com, only a limited number of new copies are available at exorbitant cost. However, used copies are available at moderate cost.

  19. Pingback: May 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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