As I build out my library of GAD literature, it all comes down to the promise of an unknown story, sometimes by an unknown author, based on the back of recommendations I’ve seen from well regarded bloggers or an interesting comment left on some random post. In seeking out these titles to purchase, it’s hard not to get drawn in by the qualities of the actual books themselves – the cover art, the edition, the physical format. Yeah, I could buy some gangly modern day 10×7 copy with dreadful cover art, settle for the generic 1980s printing, pick up the ebook version for a fraction of the price, or splurge for that original hardback with a crinkly dust cover.
For me though, there is one pure form that has no equal. The 7×5 pocket format, typically published between the 1930s-50s. You know what I’m talking about – the Dells, Avons, Pocket Books, and occasional Berkleys or Bantams. The size is perfect. The paper (both cover and page) has the right feel. And then there is the art. I absolutely love the illustrations. There’s something about the style that just connects with me in a way that I can’t describe.
I attempted to put it into words a few weeks ago when I first received my copy of The Frightened Stiff by Kelley Roos. “Isn’t that cover just perfect?” I asked a friend. “Uh, I mean, I guess it’s ok. I don’t really get why you like it so much though. I mean, it’s not bad…”
Sigh. Such is life for us, I guess.
The Frightened Stiff is more than cover art, of course. It’s my first experience with Kelley Roos (a husband/wife writing team), and one I’ve been looking forward to since I first read a review of Sailor Take Warning. A recent comment on one of my posts nudged me towards The Frightened Stiff, and it’s hard to resist cracking into a new acquisition – especially with a cover this good.
The story follows Haila and Jeff Troy as they move into a basement level apartment in Manhattan. Taking a break from decorating their new abode, the couple stops for dinner at a nearby restaurant. Haila is horrified to overhear a man in a phone booth making plans for a rendezvous with an unknown party – at her new address. The next morning finds the mysterious stranger naked and dead in the garden outside of the Troy’s apartment. A key phrase overheard during the phone conversation the night before implies that the killer is an occupant of the apartment building, although I saw this as less than an air tight assumption. The Troys find themselves as suspects in the case, swept up with seven other occupants.
The deceased is identified as Mike Kaufman, the occupant of a top floor apartment. Nobody in the building seems to have ever talked to him, and little is known about who he was. Upon gaining access to Kaufman’s apartment, detectives are startled to find it completely empty – swept clean as if no one had ever lived there. Yet there is testimony by the tenants that the rooms had been seen to be fully furnished on the day of the murder.
This presents a problem – various witnesses were present throughout the day in key parts of the building, and it seems impossible that an entire apartment’s worth of furniture could have been moved out of the building without someone hearing or seeing the act. “Impossible” is the key word here, because I found this one to be a bit subtle of a puzzle. I was probably 2/3 of the way through the book, wondering when I was going to encounter some impossible crime, when it dawned on me that the furnishings of an entire apartment disappearing was the impossibility.
Although my copy of the book is labeled “A Jeff Troy Mystery”, the story unfolds from the eyes of the amateur detective’s wife – Haila. The narrative is fairly light hearted and focuses quite a bit on the domestic affairs of the Troys. Jeff is the brains of the operation while Haila is more concerned with housework and doting over her husband. There must be some element of social satire here on Roos part, as Haila actually comes across as the more insightful of the pair, although it is her husband who makes all of the key deductions in the case.
I’m tempted to classify this as a “Hollywood” mystery – it reads very much like a film of the period (in fact, it was released as one, under the title of A Night to Remember). While enjoyable, the story telling feels a bit tailored to the screen and it lacks the depth that I’m used to in other GAD works from the period. I can’t say it isn’t fun though. The story is laced with just the right amount of wit to have you constantly smirking, while never swerving into slapstick.
Although breezy and light hearted throughout, The Frightened Stiff surprises in the end with a downright thrilling finale that completely crept up on me. I had already figured out the solution to the impossibility, but the ending earns points for spine chilling tension.
I don’t know that I’d run out and push anyone to seek out The Frightened Stiff, but it you already have it, you’re due for a quick and enjoyable mystery. The solution to the impossibility is clever, although I think many experienced readers may clue into it on their own.
I have a bit more to say, but I’ll have to reserve that for spoilers. If you’ve read The Frightened Stiff, please be subtle with any comments you post below to avoid giving things away for others.
The solution to the impossibility came to me moments after I realized it was even “the impossibility”. It just seemed to be the one reasonable explanation of what had happened. I do have to question if the impossibility was even necessary in the first place. The only reason that the detectives knew that the victim’s apartment had been furnished was because the tenants reported that it had been. If they had simply said that they had never been inside, then there wouldn’t be an impossibility to draw the suspicion of the detectives.
My biggest disappointment was the identity of the murderer. Not specifically who it turned out to be, but that it felt like it could have been drawn from a hat. There was no cluing that I can recall that pointed to the culprit, and it could have really turned out to be any of the other characters and the effect of the ending would have been no different.