The first time I read the book, I was impressed with what I felt was new territory being explored–an old murder having a direct bearing on a recent one. It felt unique. But upon second reading for this list, I wasn’t as taken with the plot within the plot as I was before, and I guessed the outcome far earlier than I should have. Still, it has its points, the greatest being the writing of Richard Lockridge. I hope to compose a more comprehensive article on the author at a later date. He and his then wife Frances, wrote many novels with a Nick and Nora inspired married couple. They were sophisticated New Yorkers, he the owner of a small publishing company, she his slightly ditzy wife. Both love cats, both fall headlong into murder far more than any other New Yorker I know. They are best friends with a police detective, therefore have the inside track on the investigations.
Richard Lockridge explained he and his wife’s collaboration thusly–“We had story conferences, and wrote a summary. As we both insisted, the writing was entirely mine. The contribution made by Frances might amount to five pages of plot, which I would then turn into a 200-page manuscript.” From the wonderful William DeAndrea book on the crime fiction novel, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. From wikipedia:
“Mr. and Mrs. North were named for the “stupid people who played the north hand in bridge problems,” according to Lockridge. The book was published in 1940 as The Norths Meet Murder, launching a series of twenty-six novels, which was adapted for the stage, film, radio, and television.” After his wife’s death in 1962, he wrote no more North books, but continued with several other series they had created. Most of the North novels are light and airy, fun confections with little serious or dark moments. Murder Within Murder has the same light touch, but delving into past murders that are rather nasty and heartless, the book feels a bit more meaty.
The first paragraph give us a precise picture of the victim, and what a victim.
“Miss Amelia Gipson presented a firm front to the world.; she stood for no nonsense. For the conscious period of her fifty-two years she had stood for no nonsense in a world which was stubbornly nonsensical. The nonsense in the world had not been greatly abated by her attitude but Miss Gipson’s skirts were clean. What one person could do, she had done. If that was inadequate, the fault lay elsewhere; there was a laxity in higher places. Miss Gipson often suspected that there was.”
One thing about these older mysteries with old biddy characters that amuse me– is their age. A woman in her 50s was elderly. A man in his 60s was distinguished. Miss Gibson was not only old, but dressed like it. And acted like it, with a moral compass that was way off the map–she saw unpleasant sexual activities everywhere. Miss Gipson taught at a well known school. She accused a professor of unprofessional attention to a student, and ruined that man’s career, which in turn ruined his life. After accusing a few too many people of the same thing, she was asked to leave. She had done her duty. Not her fault if no one sees it that way. At the moment, Miss Gipson was researching old unsolved murders for a book to be written by the best crime novelists of the day. Jerry North had hired her and hadn’t really expected too much to come of it–certainly not murder. But Miss Gipson was nothing if not thorough, and apparently dug up something on one of the cases that did her in. In the immense 5th Ave. New York Public Library. The one with the giant lions flanking the steps. The one where you could get lost if without your glasses because they had cracked and the back up ones stepped on while looking for them. And you’ve taken the frames to a optical store across from the library and there’s no where else to go in the cold winter wind, so you try to pass the time of day wandering around the vast halls, and lose your way. This last bit is from my life when I first arrived in NY. Just a tidbit for no reason, other than if you’ve ever had the privilege of spending time in that great building, you understand my story. (a crime novel by former sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein explores everything about the library.) Miss Gibson had presented her slips to the librarian and her books retrieved for her to study, “at a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes before the library closed, Miss Gibson became violently ill at her seat at one of the long tables. She died in the emergency ward at Bellevue Hospital, at about eleven o’clock. Sodium fluoride poisoning had been diagnosed promptly; but Miss Gipson had not responded t0 treatment.”
Before dying she was taking notes on one of the old unsolved murders, and the line “I have been poisoned by. . .” trailed off the page. Naturally, the police and the Norths decide it was one of the cases she was working on which got her killed. Jerry North explained what Miss Gipson had been working on, and that she was doing a very good job. Pam North replies:
“I think, she carried it too far.” They looked at her. “I only mean, she said, “you don’t have to go to the length of getting murdered. It’s too thorough.”
The rest of the book is the puzzling out of who did her in–with her niece, nephew, the man she ruined basically ruled out, they concentrate on the few cases she had researched. And the fact of a letter sent her that begged Miss Gipson to reconsider her point of view. On what, no one knew.
It is interesting to see how each past murder could just possibly hold the key to Miss Gipson’s demise, with all manner of clues from the past and present co-mingling to create confusion. And I do love Richard Lockridge’s easy going soft prose and nifty characters. But with my new guidelines for the list–I’m not sure this title will remain within it, after I re-read all the others, and then some.