The Frightened Stiff – Kelley Roos (1942)

FrightenedStiffAs 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.

End Spoilers

15 thoughts on “The Frightened Stiff – Kelley Roos (1942)”

  1. Thanks for your review of this book by an author I had never heard of. I added to my TBR.
    You may want to fix the spelling in the title of your post: frighted instead of frightened.


  2. The impossibility here I always considered a little borderline; it can be explained quite easily — and that is the explanation used in the book — it just then requires you to make a necessary connection which feeds into the wider plot. I apologise if you were given the idea this was first and foremost an impossible criem novel, because I don’t think that’s a fair summation of it at all (whereas Sailor, Take Warning is all about the impossible stabbing…and a little disappointing for it).

    I love the balancing of tone and action in this — that early chapter when Haila goes investigating in the cellar is pure nightmare, but the dialgoue througout is marvellous, and the Troys are a beautifully engaging couple who genuinely care about each other and are thankfully less idiosyncratic than many of the contemporary sleuthing couples. Sorry you didn’t love this as much as I did, maybe the weight of expectation was a little great; hmmm, we need to find a way to enthuse about things without over-enthusing, hey?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I built up my own enthusiasm based solely off the cover. Hmm, there must be a lesson in there somewhere….

      I don’t think this was sold to me as an impossible crime, although it was a recommended read. Midway through the book I was thinking “hmm, well there must be something clever going on, like an impossibility, because this seems fairly straight forward.” Fortunately, I was right, but once you realize the question, there is only one reasonable answer. I did like it, I just didn’t love it.


  3. First of all, you’re absolutely right about the splendor of those old paperback lines. Particularly, the Dell Mapbacks, which might be the most collectible line of paperbacks ever published. I have an entire shelves of them and would never part with them. On the other hand, I was quite taken with the cover illustration of the gangly, modern reprint edition by the Rue Morgue Press. The illustration of the skeleton singing in the bath is my favorite RMP cover illustration and they had quite some good ones.

    Glad to read you liked this one, for the most part, despite some of your reservations.

    JJ is right that the impossible is really a borderline and is not played as such in the story, but it does provide an all important clue to the murderers identity. You mention in your spoilers that you felt that the murderer was drawn from a hat, but that is, as far as I remember, not true. The solution as to how the apartment was emptied eliminated all but one of the suspects. And there were other clues. I quite clearly remember loving the dovetailing of all the plot-threads and clues. I’m sure all of the clues were there and the murderer was not randomly selected.

    However, I might have to re-read the book as time has fuzzied the finer plot-details. In any case, The Frightened Stiff is still a personal favorite.


    1. The Dell Mapbacks are the true pinnacle in my opinion and I treasure each one that I have. If I have one regret, it is that I built out my Carr library by simply targeting the lowest price, rather than being more selective about editions. As such, 70% of my Carr titles are pretty mediocre when it comes to the art and format. Of course, I still enjoy them…

      I had wised up by the time I moved on to collecting Ellery Queen and I have some excellent Pocket Book, Avon, and Dell copies. I’ve also acquired some excellent Berkeley, Rawson, and Gilbert editions. If you’re patient enough, you can often find these editions for the same price if not cheaper than the less desirable editions. Perhaps the 70s/80s/90s releases were smaller runs, which makes the more collectible? Not for me!


  4. Glad this was an okay outing for you with the Roos. The stories are by no means perfect but they such a lot of wonderful fun. Made up to Kill – the first in the series is another good one. Probably wouldn’t recommend If the Shroud Fits as much. Tom Cat has reviewed some others from the series I think as well.


  5. I reviewed this on my blog as well. I had picked up the book based on on another blogger’s recommendation, but as usual, I can’t remember who (old lady memory). I felt about the same as you did about THE FRIGHTENED STIFF – not great, but certainly worth looking for more in the series. I especially loved the Greenwich Village setting – I grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan and the Village was an old stomping ground. I wish I had this particular edition since I too LOVE the Golden Age art and the feel of vintage paperbacks. When Possible I do try to get the copy with the best cover and mapbacks are the best of the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I should probably check out Kelley Roos in the future. I kinda like these “American 50s style mysteries” (which aren’t always written by Americans), even though they are sometimes more focussed on the action than on the detection and overarching plot. They are kinda cinematic and more than a little influenced by screwball.

    I mean, I’ve read and liked almost everything by Jack Iams and Delano Ames, and there’s also Fredric Brown’s “Murder Can Be Fun”, and Helen McCloy and the Patrick Quentin collective also ended up in this genre for a while there. I guess Craig Rice might also qualify, though I think she’s a little bit too out there.

    So Kelley Roos should probably be a safe bet for me. Thanks for the review!


    1. I think your phrasing captured The Frightened Stiff perfectly – it is kind of cinematic, slightly influenced by screwball, and is decidedly American 50s. As an American myself, I personally prefer a British style mystery, preferably in the 30s-40s vein.


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