Friday, March 8, 2013

FFB: Murder Among Friends - Lange Lewis

US 1st edition (Bobbs Merrill, 1942)
Kate Farr is about to start her new job as secretary to the Dean of Students at an unnamed medical college in southern California.  She is replacing Garnet Dillon, a woman who up and disappeared leaving behind a cryptic note to her boss and not a word to any of her many friends on campus. Just so happens Kate's one time boyfriend John Greenwood is currently an intern there and he takes her on a tour of the school's many buildings. One of their first stops is the cadaver room where they meet Griswold whose job it is to embalm the bodies donated for science. Kate reluctantly agrees to see their latest donation.  When the sheet is removed from the body the two men gasp. Kate sees a blond woman with long red fingernails.  As Lange writes: "Kate realized that Garnet Dillon had come back."

Murder Among Friends (1942) is the first detective novel by Lange Lewis, the pen name for novelist Jane Benyon. The book introduces readers to Lieutenant Richard Tuck, a policeman who relies on a blend of reason and imagination in solving his cases. When reason fails him as he pores over the evidence he resorts to putting himself in the murderer's place and imagining possible scenarios that often defy logic.  He is described as unsentimental but by the book's conclusion we discover he has a deeply hidden compassion not often seen in the usual tough cops of 1940s era crime fiction. 

Garnet Dillon we learn was more than a secretary. She was a close friend with many of the students, mostly male students who were attracted by her stunning good looks and drawn to her vivacious personality.  Dean Calder, her boss, however quickly points out to Lt. Tuck that his secretary was not too smart and a little too friendly.  He also confides that she seemed to be staunchly conservative in her personal beliefs and more than once hinted that she had an unsophisticated, almost childlike, view of life after death. Tuck will interview many of the close circle of Garnet's friends who make up the pool of suspects, but it is always the victim who is the focus of the investigation.  Lange's book in many ways anticipates the now modern trend of looking to the victim's life first to help understand the crime.

Paperback edition (Bart House, 1946)
The further Tuck delves into Garnet's life the more mysterious she becomes. She is not at all the naive flirt she was thought to be. She had multiple secrets, the most intriguing being one that she left written on some notepaper in which she refers to "the thing that follows me everywhere."  She seems to be haunted by "this thing" yet no one who called her a friend can recall her appearing anxious or fearful.

But there is something for all the woman in town to fear. A stalker has been killing women and taking their purses as trophies. Already five women have been killed in remote areas surrounding the campus.  Not so coincidentally Garnet's purse was stolen from the place where she died. Tuck thinks Garnet may have been the most recent victim of this stalker dubbed "Black Overcoat" by the newspapers and police. Tuck's police co-workers doubt it. After all, the stalker's victims were stabbed and Garnet was poisoned. While the other police track "Black Overcoat" Tuck concurrently continues his investigation of Garnet's death. Eventually the two storylines intersect in an original twist.

Beyond the crime plots, however, is the story of Garnet Dillon's life. When her secrets are uncovered her life takes on a deeply poignant aspect that elevates this novel from its genre roots resulting in an uncommonly moving story. Amid all the modern elements like high tech discussions of the medical effects of digitalis and a character who is conducting genetic research is a heart wrenching story of a woman seemingly doomed by Fate and circumstance and loved too deeply by her friends.

12 comments:

  1. Never heard of this author John but sounds like a winner - I now ask my perennial question, how easy (or not) is it to find? Cheers mate.

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    1. There are US hardcover, US paperback and UK hardcovers editions for sale online right now. They range from $9 (paperback) to $75 (collectible condition hardcover without the DJ). Someone had a hardcover with DJ for sale and I borrowed their photo to illustrate this post, but it seems to have been sold for my picture of the DJ is the only one online now! If looking for the UK hardcover -- most of those are fairly priced at $24 - $40 -- make sure you use the British title of Death Among Friends when searching. Good luck!

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  2. I agree with Sergio. Never heard of the author but what a fascinating tale it seems to be.

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    1. This is one worth reading, neer, if you can find a copy. I had a deeply personal reaction at the end. I don't find too many vintage crime novels that cover the topics Lewis chose and lead the reader to examine his own ideas of philosophy, faith, and moral choices. Maybe I just read this at a certain time in my life where it meant more and others will not find any of what I found. But I hope my reading is the one that Lewis intended.

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  3. John, I've long admired your ability to write about a mystery and hook the reader without so much as a hint of a spoiler. The above is a fine example. Well done, sir!

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    1. Appreciate that compliment, Brian. Confession: this post underwent agonizing surgery before I hit the Publish button.

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  4. For my part, I have heard of Lange Lewis. Years ago, I read her book "The Birthday Murder," which is another entry in the Lt. Tuck series and which Harper Perennial reprinted in the 1980s. That book, and a couple of others by Lewis, were also issued as Dell Mapbacks. My memory of "The Birthday Murder" is that it, too, featured well-done character studies along with a solid puzzle plot.

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    1. Two years ago TomCat reviewed THE MEAT MURDER at his blog Beneath the Stains of Time. in keeping with Lange's taste for odd topics it incorporates vegetarianism into the plot. I've always wanted to read JULIET DIES TWICE, but now it seems to be the scarcest of her books and -- of course -- more expensive than I'm willing to pay.

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  5. The book sounds fascinating. And such lovely covers. I also had not heard of the author. Another to add to my wishlist.

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  6. I'm with TracyK, John. This sounds fascinating. I'm adding the title to the Vintage List. Love the covers too. They'll go on my Pinterest Vintage Mystery Board.

    Christie, too, if I'm remembering correctly, thought that the victim's background/life would reveal clues to the killer.

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    1. Indeed she did. I guess I read so many plot oriented books by obscure writers I tend to forget the well known GAD writers who were out there changing the course of the genre for generations to come. I have to confess this one got me teared up, Yvette. Lange has a way of evoking true empathy for Garnet's plight.

      That's a photo cover on the Bart House paperback. It also has some nifty photo illlustrated endpapers -- unique for a paperback book. I should post them tomorrow.

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  7. Like "onlydetec"--the only experience I have of Lewis (Jane Benyon) is The Birthday Murder, which I had on my TBF list for a very long time until I found a paperback copy a few years before blogging (B.B.) I really enjoyed that one, and now you've revealed an academic-themed book by Lewis....well, obviously, I'm going to have to track this one down as well. Great review, John. And if I hadn't already had a good experience with Lewis, your review would make me want to hunt this one down.

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