Bear with me, readers! I have to save a friendship!
I’ve been blogging for ten months now, and I have enjoyed bobbing up and down at the fringes of a circle of powerful people who write about vintage mysteries. They are a complex and interesting bunch, and I enjoy our interactions, no more so than with my two best buds, JJ and Kate.
We’re kind of like the Three Musketeers, Kate, JJ, and I, and there’s no end to the sort of mischief we get into: sharing a rowdy pint at JJ’s local pub, The Judas Window, where we get down to a serious competition over darts (I always bring the board with Paul Halter’s face taped on the front); saddling Kate’s pygmy goats and riding to the side of the local highway, hooting raucously at any hard-boiled crime fans who drive past; plotting fifty good ideas before breakfast on how to get Donald Trump to disappear forever.
And now, it’s all falling apart. Kate and JJ have come to blows over an Irish writer named Eilís Dillon, specifically over Death at Crane’s Court, the first of only three mysteries she wrote. Kate, who publishes the blog Cross Examining Crime, is a fan of Dillon’s characterization and praised the setting and plot of the book here. JJ, well known for his forays into the world of locked room mystery fiction at his site, The Invisible Event, was appalled at Dillon’s callous portrayal of the elderly in his review here. Ultimately, my two former comrades-in-arms declared war on each other, and our regular Saturday night bridge games (where we bet on who could sneak out as dummy and jab Kate’s sister with a hatpin without being caught) effectively came to an end.
Damn you, Eilís Dillon!
It thus became incumbent on me to read Death at Crane’s Court and resolve this emotional brouhaha in order to restore peace to the Musketeers! Luckily, I had already purchased the novel while in New York, and so I vowed to make this refereeing job my top priority. JJ and Kate have both agreed to abide by my word so that we can resume coming up with flavor names for my ice cream shoppe for mystery lovers (Ngaio Marshmallow, anyone?)
I have to reveal my own prejudices here, and they include the outward similarity between Dillon and Harriet Rutland, who also only wrote three mysteries and who similarly set her first one at a residential hotel catering primarily to the old and the infirm. I absolutely loved Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock as I discussed here. In fact, my biggest disap-pointment was that Rutland only had three books to her credit, so I am parceling out my experience as stingily as possible. The question is, does Death at Crane’s Court make me want to do the same with Dillon? Since it turns out that the tone of both books and the nature of the cases themselves are so different that they beggar comparison, I’m forced to consider Dillon separately from Rutland and to make my judgments from this book alone.
This is a great book!!!
The novel is subtitled “An Irish Mystery,” and I wonder if there is something about this fine culture that informs the book as we read it. I don’t want to talk in clichés, but one often hears the idea of “fey” bandied about when it comes to the Irish. That certainly could be borne out by Dillon’s book since the residents of the hotel where the action is set are, for the most part, fey to the nth degree! Yes, JJ is entirely correct in his review when he informs you that Dillon has included a Major who shot his cook to death for making the sprouts too watery and a little old lady who murders her cats to use as fertilizer for her garden. The hotel is a hotbed of viciousness and gossip amongst its mostly elderly crowd, as well as people with the most cockamamie schemes, like the nasty old harridan with the loser son that she wants to foist off on the beautiful owner of the hotel, figuring that a widow will marry anybody. But Dillon is making a point – one that Rutland also made in her book – that people with too much time on their hands, or those who are vastly absorbed in their own ill health or problems, will slowly rot on the inside. The young protagonist of Crane’s Court, George Arrow, actually observes this happening to himself when he arrives to stay after a diagnosis of a serious heart problem, and Dillon suggests this was to be expected:
“It was so easy there to believe that his own comfort, the very angle of his chair and the temperature of his room, were important. Everyone took for granted that he would be selfish, particular and critical of what was done for him . . . He began to develop silly likes and fancies, to arrive for meals at the same moment every day, and to be impatient of the smallest delay in the service.”
George is only thirty-six when this transformation takes place, and while JJ complains of Dillon’s tendency to dismiss the elderly with spurious tags of eccentricity, he would have to admit that the younger characters have similar quirks. As a major character, George turns out to be a more wholly-rounded character by the end, as does the elderly Professor Daly, an amusing man with the dreaded secret that he writes bad but successful romance novels under the name Rosemary Downes and who seems perfectly willing to let someone get away with murder if the victim’s death has improved everyone’s standard of living.
Meanwhile, Kate places much of her appreciation for Dillon’s powers of characterization on the two prominent female characters: the scheming receptionist Eleanor Keane and the lovely – but is she too good to be true? – Barbara Henry, the hotel owner, who seems to make every man want to marry her. I enjoyed both these characters, although I couldn’t help thinking about characters like Mrs. Dawson, the mystery novelist, or Mrs. Napier, the angry old lady, in Knock, Murderer, Knock. Both these women – indeed, all the characters in Rutland’s novel – seemed both funnier and more complex and realistically drawn. I also felt that the depiction of both Barbara and Eleanor reflected the inherent sexism of 1950’s society, and I was a little surprised by that considering that the author was a woman. Even though Mike makes several references to the ridiculousness of the idea that a widow is always prime for remarriage – and not choosy about it – the men here all tend to consider the women on the basis of their attraction or lack thereof. And the women either wrap themselves up around their men or are victimized by men and basically just take it. Barbara’s actions regarding her son reflect this and made no sense to me even after the novel was over. The women in Rutland’s novel seemed stronger in mind and spirit, more in control of their own fates.
Did I mention that you should read this???
Oh, but there I go! I promised not to compare. I liked the people in Dillon’s book. I liked the setting, and I enjoyed the gentle humor, especially Professor Daly’s and that of Inspector Mike Kenny, Daly’s friend from the Guard who comes to solve the case. I shuddered at the story of Mrs. Fennell, the cat murderess, but at least this situation does end up bearing some significance to the actual murder plot.
And speaking of plot, here’s where I fear I begin to choose clearer sides. JJ didn’t speak much about the investigative aspects of the plot, while Kate suggested that the choice of murderer and motive were “well-chosen, complex but plausible.” I would venture to say that Death at Crane’s Court would not please those who love a good puzzle mystery since there really is no puzzle element present. It reads much more like a police procedural, dependent completely on the interviews Mike has with the various characters in and around the hotel. Through them, he determines many motives, and he creates a timeline, which suggests that nearly everyone visited the victim on the day of his death. There really are no clues per say, neither physical nor verbal ones, and at the end I couldn’t help feeling that Mike had pretty much guessed his way to the correct solution.
That said, I spotted the murderer immediately. I didn’t understand the killer’s reasons, but then nobody could have because we get no information necessary ahead of time to figure that out. I just knew. It may be a gift, or it may be that, for reasons I will only discuss privately or in the comments below in order not to spoil things for potential readers, this person stood out by a mile. And so, like the characters, the mystery itself becomes a little bit “fey.”
An introduction about Dillon, written by her daughter Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, is included in the book. In it we learn that Dillon was of a highly literary mind and perhaps sought to “elevate” mysteries with fine writing. (She appreciated Christie’s plots but would not have her books in the house due to their simplistic style, preferring instead Sayers, Allingham and Chesterton.) Crane’s Court tends to reflect this, paying little heed to unimportant matters of clueing and suspense over style and characterization. I did pick up another Dillon in New York, Death in the Quadrangle, and I look forward to reading it, although not as much since I read Kate’s warning that it’s detection is not as strong as in the first book. (According to her daughter, it was in Dillon’s middle mystery, Sent to His Account, that she really excelled at puzzle-building.)
Meanwhile, I’ll take this moment once again to highly recommend Harriet Rutland to you all on the strength of a debut mystery that – okay, I have to say it – beats out Dillon’s first effort in every capacity by a mile!
Don’t be mad at me, Kate. And please make it up to JJ. We’ll let you be dummy!!! Here, you want a bowl of Rum Raisin Chandler? JJ, where are the darts . . . ?