Saturday, February 13, 2010

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly (Felony and Mayhem Part 2)

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly (Felony & Mayhem, May 2009)

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As I mentioned in the previous post, a large part of the charm of the "Vintage" mysteries published by Felony & Mayhem is the immersion in the past. For a sense of the Agatha-Christie-only-more-so appeal, I can't say it better than F&M's modern back cover copy from Arrow Pointing Nowhere, part of the Henry Gamadge series:

"Take one grand house, stuff it with staff, and make it home to several generations. If they send their sons to Oxford and occasionally knock each other off, you've got a country-house murder mystery, that classic of English crime fiction. But if the boys are at Yale, odds are that you're reading a New York mansion mystery -- a genre largely invented and perfected by Elizabeth Daly."

Yep, only the boys go to college, and all kinds of extended family share the mansion with the servants -- it's a whole different world.

But with Elizabeth Daly's books, the exoticism off the time period is only part of the goods: the other part is Henry Gamadge. If Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade were a bit more bookish and a little less alienated, he might resemble Gamadge (except he's got a happy marriage more like Nick and Nora Charles). He's ostensibly a professional expert in rare books, with a love for solving puzzles. More importantly, he's the kind of guy you want on your side in a pinch. Gracious, diplomatic, perspicacious, infinitely resourceful, quick on the uptake and on the trigger if necessary, Gamadge is your go-to guy if you're in a spot. I love his relationship with his wife Clara (a romance which actually comes about during one of the books in the series and sticks for the rest of them, which is a rarity) and with his assistant/co-conspirator Harold, who in this volume is back from the War on leave. Their mutual trust and profoundly functional relationships are always in contrast to the web of conspiracies, suspicion, and murderous intent found in the (typically rich) families they're called in to investigate.

In Arrow, Gamadge doesn't even know which member of the family he's working for. He's received a mysterious message and knows that someone in the Fenway mansion is in mortal danger -- but is it the generous but naive Pater Familias? The invalid former beauty who married in? The grim-looking paid companion? The amiable ne'er-do-well uncle? The strong-willed spinster? The mentally deficient grandson? (I love how you can tell he's "off" by the fact that he doesn't stand when someone comes into the drawing room.)

Gamadge will solve it, of course, though there's no guarantee anyone will survive to the end, and Gamadge and his crew end up having to do a lot more physical labor in the course of cracking the case than say, Hercule Poirot. I highly recommend curling up with this or any other book in the Gamadge series, just to see how it all comes out, and to enjoy the setting and the personalities that make this series so original and yet somehow inevitable.