4/11/11

Not What You'd Expect From a Disney

Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not a belated rant on Disney's inane scheme for a modern rendition of the Miss Marple character – plucking her from a quiet village in the British countryside and dumping her in the Big City in the guise of a present-day version of a 1920s flapper.

I will not drop any embittered comments on how Agatha Christie's grandson is pimping out her estate and that everyone with a pocketful of loose change can take Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple for a ride. Nor shall I make poor attempts at sarcasm by saying that the next major announcement will probably be that Harlequin Publishers has acquired the rights to The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930), and are in the process of revising them into full-length romance novels – with all the detective stuff cut out of them, of course, but to make up for the lost of authenticity they will slap the name of Mary Westmacott on the covers. Nope. Not a peep out of me on that subject.

The Disney I'm referring to is Dorothy Cameron Disney, one of the many shamefully neglected names in the field, who specialized in blending detection with atmospheric scenes of suspense and eerie foreshadowing sequences – commonly referred to as "Had-I-But-Known." This term is used to describe the books of Mary Robert Rinehart and her followers, who usually have their heroine reflecting back at the start of their novels, "had I but known that my surprise visit to my Great-aunt Agatha would expose a dark plot leading to the death of four people, I would never have gone to Rockport." Or something that runs along similar lines.

To be fair, this particular sub-genre never really appealed to me, sounding just a little bit too much as cozies with some doom and gloom added to the mix, but the descriptions and reviews of Dorothy Cameron Disney's mysteries, suggesting complex plotting wrapped up in a thick, atmospheric blanket, did catch my attention – and after reading her first book, Death in the Back Seat (1936), I'm glad that, once again, I succumbed to temptation.

Death in the Back Seat opens with a young couple, Jack and Lola Storm, taking a break from their expensive New York lifestyle, and settle down for while in the quiet town of Crockford, situated in rural Connecticut, where they rent a small cottage from the unsociable Luella Coatesnash – a stout, old-fashioned woman who's somewhat of an unofficial sovereign of the region.

But peace and quietness simply cannot be allowed to reign long in a detective story, and when a mysterious telephone call, more or less, orders the Storms to pick up a business acquaintance of their landlady, who, at that moment, is visiting France with her companion, they're unwillingly dragged into a vast and dark plot – leaving them with a corpse on the rumble seat of their car and a bag in the front seat stashed with cash.

And that's just for starters. Crockford, being the small town it is, are prejudiced against the suspicious outsiders and it doesn't exactly help that their cottage, and the grounds immediately surrounding it, are the center of all the criminal activity in the region – from a burglar, his face blackened with charcoal, stumbling from their closet and fleeing into the night to charred fragments of bone in a furnace.

Crime Map on the Back Cover
However, they're not making things exactly easy for themselves, either, purposely stumbling from one dangerous situation into another – all the while finding clues, uncovering hidden relationships, and, more importantly, not trying to get themselves killed. The only thing you can say against them is that they don't do it with the same joie de vivre as the Troys and the Browns, but then again, this not that type of mystery.

This book is really one big knotted ball of plot threads that slowly unravels in front of a captivated reader, and the best part is that you can play with it yourself, by trying to unsnarl it before Jack and Lola do, or, uhm, just sit back and enjoy the ride.  

On a final note, Mike Grost notes on his excellent website that Disney completely ignored one of Van Dine's sacred rules, and I have one thing to say about that: good for her!

There are, IMHO, only two rules for writing a good detective story: it has to play fair with the reader and there has to be a plot (or at the very least an attempt at creating one). I see no discernible reason why a detective story should exclude sinister societies, monstrous conspiracies, tough gangsters or a genuine love interest. It just depends on how well an author can work these elements into a story, and some do it better than others. Disney is one of them and scores full marks for this effort.

7 comments:

  1. I'm sorry, but it really is mind-boggling to read of someone named Disney writing about good old-fashioned corpses. Never even heard of this author before. Hmm, a nearby bookstore just happens to have 3 of Disney's books... Argh, I recognize this pattern! Damn you, Red Baron!!!

    This sounds like a wonderful ride. Certainly more spirited than the one I'm reading at the moment. Glad you enjoyed it, not so glad I've got another source of temptation at the moment...

    You know, I'm not sure it's ever possible to write down a set of rules for detective fiction. Any time you try, someone will turn out to have written a book that smashes your rule to pieces, all while remaining a good mystery.

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  2. *Correction: Just one by this particular Disney. Doris and Dorothy looked uncommonly alike. But it just so happens to be this book.

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  3. I ws wondering who you were going to pull out of your library. Never would've guessed this woman.

    Sounds like Margaret Millar, to me. She didn't com along until 1941, though. Charlotte Armstrong was damn good at this type of suspense and detection book as well and took over the crown in the 1950s and 1960s. She was so popular her books and short stories were regularly being adapted on TV shows like "Thriller" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

    I have a couple of Cameron Disney Mapbacks but never got around to reading any of them. THE STRAWSTACK MURDERS and CRIMSON FRIDAY. In they go to the TBR mountain along with the Lenore Glen Offord Mapbacks I own.

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  4. Quick responses:

    @Patrick:

    Yeah, the name isn't one that's associated with this type of stories, and it takes some time for your mind to adjust, but even then, you keep expecting the characters to burst into song.

    You're correct that's almost impossible to have rules set in stone, but I think plot and fair play are the basic requirements for a good detective story, even if books like Keating's Inspector Ghote Goes by Train successfully disregards them.

    As unbelievable as it may sounds, there were two (2!) Disney's active in the field, however, Doris Miles Disney doesn't seem to have been anywhere near as good as Dorothy Cameron Disney. Still, who wouldn't want to read a mystery with the lovely title Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate?

    @John:

    You probably won't guess who's next on my list, either, but it promises to be a gem of a short story collection – and one that contains several impossible crime stories!

    The only other Disney book I have here is The Strawstack Murders (the same edition you have), and, from what I read, it's even better than Death in the Back Seat. So expect a blog entry on that book in near future.

    I really wish now that I hadn't pass up The Hangman's Tree, because the first two pages were loose.

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  5. I checked Hubin and Disney only wrote eight books. Huh. Wonder what happened? I found another book of hers while digging around. It's a copy of The 17th Letter in a Bantam paperback. Now I have three Disney books to read. I started Strawstack last night. It actually has a sentence on the first page that starts "Had I known..." And another that "I could've prevented the murders if..."
    A true HIBK.

    The other Disney (Doris Miles) was far more prolific. Her entry in Hubin goes for two columns. I remember reading DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE OR MUTILATE (great title - that used to be written on old computer cards and forms that needed to be processed by old lead pencil readers) and a few others of hers way back when. Nothing special that I can remember about them.

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  6. Only eight books? The GAD wiki lists nine titles:

    - Death in the Back Seat (1936)
    - Strawstack a.p.a. The Strawstrack Murders (1939)
    - The Golden Swan Murder (1939)
    - The Balcony (1940)
    - Thirty Days Hath September (1942)
    - Crimson Friday (1943)
    - The Seventeenth Letter (1945)
    - Explosion (1948)
    - The Hangman's Tree (1949)

    Will you be posting a review of The Strawstack Murders on your blog?

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  7. Failing eyes and small print. Probably missed one.

    Highly likely that I'll post a review of STRAWSTACK. But not for another week or so.

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