Death’s Old Sweet Song – Jonathan Stagge (1946)

deathsoldsweetsongBecause death’s old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind…

Ok, well, it doesn’t quite go like that.  The song referenced in the title of Jonathan Stagg’s Death’s Old Sweet Song is much more obscure by my standards – Green Grow the Rushes, O, an English folk song that I’ve never heard of in my life.  It’s one of those songs where I listen to it the first time thinking “why on earth is this song even notable?” and then find it oddly sticking around in my head a few hours later.

The song is cumulative in each verse, similar to The Twelve Days of Christmas.  It plays into the novel in that each verse is associated with a murder victim, a la And Then There Were None.  In this case we get “the lily white boys clothed all in green”, “the rivals”, “the gospel makers”, and so on.  Suffice to say, Death’s Old Sweet Song has quite the body count…

So far I’ve only had a brief encounter with the author collective of Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb published under the names of Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, or in this case Jonathan Stagge.  It came in the form of a short story called Death Comes to Miss Lucy, featured in The Quintessence of Queen collection.  It was a dark story that is difficult to describe without spoilers, and it was hands down my favorite of the bunch.  Since that time I’ve been curious to return to the authors most widely known under the Patrick Quentin moniker.

Death’s Old Sweet Song caught my attention about a half year ago when a review was published at The Passing Tramp.  The notion of an And Then There Were None style serial killer novel based on the lyrics of some obscure folk standard was too good to let lie.  The only trouble was finding an affordable copy.  I’ve only just recently learned that the novel was republished by Mysterious Press in 2018.  Too late for me – I’d finally hunted down a bargain vintage copy, although not with the first cover of my choice (the edition with the group picnicking on the cover would have been preferable).  No matter though – I’d personally much rather get my hands on a 30’s-40’s edition with legitimate artwork than a modern reprint.

The story follows a series of murders that occur after a picnic in small town New England.  A group of the well todo townsfolk gather every weekend for an elaborate patio lunch.  This weekend they decide to move the festivities to a clearing near an old abandoned saw mill.  A storm breaks out and the party gets split up in a rush back to shelter.  Unfortunately, two of them don’t make it back.  The obnoxious White twins are found drowned in a nearby pond, their heads bashed in.  The members of the party quickly start to question whether “the lily White boys clothed all in green” are somehow tied to the song that was sung over lunch – Green Grow the Rushes, O (a bit of a hasty association if you ask me).

From this point on, the story basically turns into an ahead of its time slasher flick.  The members of the picnic party are hunted down one by one, turning up dead at the oddest of times.  If Jason Vorhees of Friday the Thirteenth fame had lumbered in with machete in hand, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye.

Of course I’m being tongue in cheek, but this really is the blueprint for a late 70s / early 80s slasher movie.  The deaths feel like they just happen, with no real consideration for opportunity, motive, or alibi.  It’s clear that one of the party is going to end up being the killer (no spoiler in that statement, it’s openly discussed from the start), but like many a modern horror movie (and I watch enough of them) it seemed like it was destined to be the least likely suspect with no consideration to how it was all pulled off successfully.  We simply have a maniac murdering people based on the lyrics of a folk song because…well…people do things like that.

Perhaps Death’s Old Sweet Song is a groundbreaker in that sense – this is your standard teen slasher about 30 years before the form took hold.  If you come in looking for a detective novel though, I don’t know if you’re going to get what you want.  There is next to no detection in Death’s Old Sweet Song.  Dr Hugh Westlake, the Johnathan Stagg series amateur sleuth, is a member of the picnic party and has a front row seat to the abattoir.  The police from a nearby town are called in immediately, but for some inexplicable reason they do zero investigation and rely entirely on Westlake to question any of the suspects.

Westlake, for his part, commits a series of monumentally bumbling errors:

  • Never bothering to guard the person identified as the next likely victim based on the song lyrics
  • Never taking any steps to hold the suspects in order to prevent future crimes from taking place
  • Allowing the suspects to go about whatever business they wish, with no tracking of who is where and when

The result is that we never have a clear idea of where anyone was when a murder is committed.  Without any real consideration for alibi, it feels as if the identity of the killer will merely be pulled from a hat at the end, or, more likely, selected as the person who would provide the biggest surprise.

There’s a passage that’s comically relevant in a modern meta way, in which a character suggests, “why don’t we just leave town until this blows over?”  But of course they don’t.  Yep… slasher flick.

Now, to be fair to the book, things do come together in the end.  There’s a fine revelation that happens in the last few chapters that puts much of the story in a new light.  As loose as the plot seemed throughout, there really is a finely stitched together set of events that are occurring behind the scenes that make this one satisfying.  Not the type of solid misdirection that I yearn for, but some clever enough elements that I think most readers will put this book down pleased with the conclusion.

Death’s Old Sweet Song was recently voted fourth best reprint of the year over at Cross Examining Crime, so I’m hoping that we’ll see more reviews of this one soon.  Although it’s breezy fare, it’s a fun one to zone out on and I think you’ll end up enjoying it.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to track down a copy, but now that it’s back in circulation you could do worse than to pick up a cheap copy.

As for Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge – I’ve been fleshing out my library over the past month.  Death’s Old Sweet Song didn’t hit it out of the park for me, but I’m curious to sample more of what’s available before forming an opinion.  In the mean time, any recommendations?

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6 thoughts on “Death’s Old Sweet Song – Jonathan Stagge (1946)”

  1. The Stagge novels are probably the “lightest” mysteries from this collaboration. I think that generally the early Q. Patrick and the early Patrick Quentin novels are the best for fair play puzzles. With Patrick Quentin (and the final Q. Patrick novels) we get more of those 50s style mysteries, more and more reliant on psychology and thriller elements. The Stagge books never get too heavy on the psychology, but they also stopped writing them with the advent of the 50s…

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  2. I agree with Christian. That said, I don’t believe that “fair play clueing” was necessarily PQ/QP/JS forte. The structure for a great classic mystery is there, and they’re highly entertaining, particularly the Peter Duluth novels – but they don’t clue like Carr or Christie.

    It has been a long time since I’ve read them, and I didn’t read many. I’m also collecting them for a closer study.

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  3. “…this really is the blueprint for a late 70s / early 80s slasher movie… Perhaps Death’s Old Sweet Song is a groundbreaker in that sense – this is your standard teen slasher about 30 years before the form took hold.

    Interesting observation! However, Death’s Old Sweet Song is not as innovative as you might think. Philip MacDonald already did this in 1931 with Murder Gone Mad.

    Anyway, I’m not a fan of this book and think its overrated for the weaknesses you mentioned, but they wrote some pretty good detective novels. I’m very fond of Death and the Maiden. Another favorite is Black Widow in which the detective from Death and the Maiden, Lt. Trask, is pitted against Peter Duluth from the Puzzle-series. A great example of how a crossover should be written and the plot is truly excellent. S.S. Murder is an original take on the shipboard mystery, written as a series of letters, deserving of more attention.

    I hope this helps you with fleshing out your library.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I picked up Death and the Maiden based on some positive comments I saw in the comment section of The Passing Tramp. It sounds like I should hold off on Black Widow until I have a few Trask/Duluth titles under my belt so that I can appreciate the cross over.

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