Greatly 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 …
“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”
This 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: