Did She Fall? by Thorna Smith (1932)
Thorne Smith was a popular witer of the 1920s and 1930s, best known for his slightly ribald fantasies, most notably Topper (1926) and Topper Takes a Trip (1932). The Topper books introduced the madcap ghosts, George and Marion Kirby; The Stray Lamb involves an alcoholic banker who transforms into various animals; Night Life of the Gods has statues of roman gods who come to life; Turnabout involves a husband and wife who exchange bodies; in Skin and Bones, the protagonist and his dog become skeleton versions of themselves; The Glorious Pool is a riff on the Fountain of Youth myth; and The Passionate Witch (complete by Norman Matson) was one of the inspirations for the television program Bewitched. There is a lot of nakedness, double entrendre, and alcohol consumption in Thorne Smith's novels.
Of Smith's other works, two (Biltmore Oswald and Out o' Luck) are based on humorous stories he wrote while in the Navy, one (Haunts and Bypaths) is an early book of poems), his lone mainstream (and unsuccessful) novel, Dream's End, is an unimpressive book with a slight tinge of fantasy. Smith also wrote two humourous, non-supernatural novels, The Bishop's Jaegers and Rain in the Doorway.
And then was Did She Fall?, his lone mystery novel -- one that was praised by Dashiell Hammett.
This one is a difficult book. As with other of Smith's novels, there is sex, drinking, and humor, but there is also a basic amorality that runs through the novel and taints it.
Emily-Jane Seabrook is a grasping, vicious woman who is as beautiful as her soul is ugly. Her past is littered with many sex partners whom she blackmails into getting her way. One of these men is Daniel Crewe, a likable and wealthy young man who owns a seaside estate near New York. His younger brother Barney is a dreamy quixotic artist who depends on his brother for just a out everything. Barney is engaged to marry Emily-Jane, who snagged him two weeks after meeting him. Emily-Jane is also blackmailing Daniel's best friend and college roommate Sam Stoughton, a former lover of hers who also happens to have committed murder while in college -- the circumstances behind the murder are unclear but Emily-Jane has proof of Sam's crime. Daniel feels obligated to protect Sam from Em ily-Jane.
Add to this mix Daniel's plucky and loyal girlfriend June Lansing and Sam's loyal wife Sue. Lane Holt, an acquaintance of Daniel's from college and former and current lover of Emily-Jane, has wrangled an invitation to stay at the estate, along with all those mentioned above. Lane is a bounder and a cad. Not a bounder, however is noted criminologist and good friend to the Crewe brothers, Scott Munson, who is also visiting the estate. Daniel and Barney's eccentric Aunt Mattie also lives there. Aunt Mattie has a habit of carelessly swinging a butcher's knife.
At a party where Daniel is to unwillingly announce his brother's engagement,/emily-Jane is standing in front of a curtain, flanked by the two brothers. The lights go out and Sam, behind the curtain, tries to stab Emily-Jane but misses and stabs Daniel in the arm instead. Everyone fluffs this off as an accident with Aunt Mattie walking by and swinging a knife. Daniel knows that Sam is intent on murdering Emily-Jane and decides to save Sam by murdering Emily-Jane himself. Emily-Jane goes off to a cliff-side spot for a redezvous with Lane. Daniel follows and hides in the bushes. So does Sam, although in a different set of bushes. By a third set of bushes is a housemaid and a gardenr from the estate have a romantic rendezvous. First Lane argues with the girl and they struggle by the cliff's edge, then Daniel rushes to them, intent on puching Emily-Jane off the cliff, followed by Sam, who has his own agenda. Lane runs off, and in the confusion, all at once, no Emily-Jane. He battered body lies on the rocks below the cliff.
Daniel knows he has killed his brother's fiance. Sam is distrught that he could not save his best friend from murder.
Scott Munson managed to convince the authorities to put him charge of the investigation. Munson knows that either Daniel of Sam are guilty of the murder, but nonetheless runs a rigorous investigation, hoping he can find something that would clear his friends. As the investigation continues, Munson becomes convinced that Daniel is guilty. Then Lane Holt is shot and all evidence points to Daniel as his murderer. Daniel is arrested and Scott works hard to prove him innocent of this murder, just as he is working hard to prove Daniel is guilty of the earlier murder.
In typical Thorne Smith fashion, we are also introduced to two very incompetent policemen, both named Timothy Shay. The pair provide most of the comic relief.
In the end, the guilty party escapes. Barney finds love with a childhood sweetheart. Emily-Jane's murder is declared an accident. Everybody lives happily ever after. The moral implications of the story, its characters, and its conclusion are disquieting to say the least. Scott Munson, the one exemplar of moral authority in the novel, becomes unconvincingly complicit.
This is a problem when every character in a mystery novel, except for the dead, are presnted in glowing, favorable terms, despite their moral failings.
So what to say about Did She Fall? It was an interesting read with a strong moral conflict at its core, but one that fell apart at the end -- the result, perhaps, of the author painting himself into a corner. I enjoyed much of the book and chuckled at the antics of the two Timothy Shays, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it.
Wonder if the rather casual attitude toward murder here is indicative of a certain investment in the supernatural as portrayed in his most famous novels...or if he shrugging at casual murder was somehow meant to be a bit surreal, or parodying drawing-room mystery...ReplyDelete