Stumbling across, or hearing about, a new detective writer is one of the most fun, and frustrating, parts of reading and collecting mysteries. Just when you think you've got a pretty good grasp on the genre, you trip over an old paperback edition of Pick Your Victim by one Pat McGerr or some of your fellow detective enthusiasts suddenly start recommending an all-but-forgotten author whose work has faded into complete obscurity.
Jane Lewis Brandt, who published only four detective novels under the nom-de-plum of "Lange Lewis," is one of those authors who has had the misfortune of being obnubilated from popular view – and it's hard to judge from the book I just read, Meat for Murder (1942), if her descent into biblioblivion was justified or not as the book is very uneven in quality.
It all begins very promising when Earl Falkoner, an eccentric vegetarian, health addict and successful designer of stage sets, employs three young writers at his home, The House on the Hill, to help him write a stage play. The house is actually a white stucco castle-like building right down to a moat, drawbridge, walled garden and a tower. It goes without saying that with such setting comes a cast of outré characters.
Upon their arrival, the three writers, Laurel, Jeff and Woody, meet Falkoner's two bodyguards, one of them engaged in the act of chasing the cook, who's also a religious fanatic, with a carving knife. There are three very hungry dogs, one great Dane and two spotted coach dogs, roaming the grounds of the house, and the tower is inhabited by a very unusual houseguest: a small, French mathematician who seems to be at odds with his host. But they also meet a couple of people who live elsewhere, such as two of their disgruntled predecessors, who threaten their former employer with a lawsuit, and three women who buzz around in Falkoner's life – and who may, or may not, be in love with him.
These opening chapters, introducing promising situations and sometimes slightly cracked characters, are the best part of the book and tends to give the reader the feeling that he's reading an unknown and recently unearthed Ellery Queen novel, but it quickly turns into an uninspired, run-of-the-mill detective story when someone starts liberally sowing arsenic about the place – nearly poisoning one of the women and killing Earl Falkoner and his three dogs.
Lewis proposed a lot of potentially good ideas with an interesting set-up, but failed to deliver on pretty much all of them – including one that should've granted her immortality: introducing, what probably was, the first female homicide detectives, Brigit Estee, who assists Lieutenant Tuck in his investigations. There were, of course, an abundance of female amateur sleuths in the early 1940s and there were even a few female private eyes who ran their own agency, like Rex Stout's Dol Bonner and Torrey Chanslor's The Beagle Sisters, but not, as far as I am aware, one who was an official and equal member of a homicide squad. Unfortunately, she doesn't contribute anything of substance to the story and gushes how romantic detective work is and offers a few shaky theories.
But maybe I am too harsh on Lewis. In spite of it's short comings and under whelming conclusion, it was still a fairly entertaining and fast read that went off with a promising start, but ran out of gas halfway through.
Oh well, not every obscure and nearly forgotten title that I will tackle for this blog will turn out to be a masterpiece of plotting and misdirection.