This is my second novel by the author collective most commonly known as Patrick Quentin. My previous read (Death’s Old Sweet Song) was the GAD equivalent of a mindless 70s slasher flick – enjoyable for what it is, but a bit shallow throughout. I’m intrigued by Quentin nonetheless. There’s a respectably large library of books for me to track down and I can’t help but search for that elusive “next great author”.
Death and the Maiden caught my attention as one of the more consistently recommended works by Quentin. It’s a bit tricky to track down the author’s library for cheap, but I somehow managed to get my hands on this 1944 hard cover edition for a steal.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Lee Lovering, a student at a coed college about forty minutes from Manhattan. A night out in the big city ends with her roommate Grace Hough leaving the party with a mysterious stranger. Grace’s body is found the next morning on the outskirts of a small town, her head bashed in by some sort of blunt object.
There’s nothing really exceptional about the mystery as it’s originally presented. Find the stranger that Grace left with, trace her movements after she left the party, and you might have your answer. Of course, tracking a stranger down in New York City would be tricky enough, but this seems like a fairly vanilla investigation.
Fortunately, it becomes obvious early on that things are going to be a bit more complex than that. Nearly everyone at the college that Lee interacts with seems to be hiding something. Was the dean having an affair with Grace? Why had they argued in a rock quarry earlier that day? Why are several other faculty members trying to hide the relationship between the dean and Grace, especially the dean’s wife? Who was sending Grace special delivery packages in the days leading up to her death? What did Grace write in four envelopes hours before her death?
You know, honestly, none of those questions seemed that interesting to me. They just felt like standard mystery fare where the reader is going to have to sit through one hundred fifty pages simply to realize that half of the puzzles were irrelevant and there was a perfectly reasonable explanation to it all. Then of course it will turn out that some least likely suspect was actually the killer, and we wrap it all up.
It’s so enjoyable though. In part the story is saved by Q Patrick series detective Lieutenant Trant and his interplay with Lee Lovering. I’m going to set this up to sound awful, but bear with me.
You see, Lee stumbles into all sorts of background subterfuge, and given her foolishly-innocent nature, can’t help but attempt to protect all of the suspects. Are you a character who knows where Grace was minutes before her death? Don’t worry, Lee will cover for you. Do you have the key piece of evidence stashed in your car? Lee’s got your back. Do you have four different motive’s for wanting Grace dead? Lee Lovering will perform acrobatics to keep it from the police.
You’ll roll your eyes as you read this, for sure, as Lee repeatedly withholds critical information from the investigators in an effort to shield characters who obviously seem guilty. Time and again though, she walks right into the waiting web of Lieutenant Trant.
Trant’s easy going method basically involves sitting back, asking a few innocuous questions, and then smugly watching his quarry tie themselves in knots. That’s hardly unique to detective fiction, but there’s an elegance to how Trant pulls it all off. There’s also the amusing interplay between Trant and Lee, as she repeatedly blunders into revealing all of the information she’s trying to hold back. I admit it, I ate it all up.
Ok, so at this point, we’re dealing with a pleasantly amusing read, if not the deepest of puzzles. Starting at about the halfway point though, the mystery turns from a meandering and somewhat predictable river to a torrent of revelations. I don’t know that the seasoned reader is going to be knocked over by anything (turn in your mystery reader’s card if you don’t predict at least three of the major revelations), but the twists come rapidly and the impact on the characters is amusing to watch.
And then comes the end. Man, what an ending. This is one of those where you finish the book and you regret that you didn’t drift through the last few chapters at a more leisurely pace to take it all in. There’s so much that happens, and it some of it really requires time to appreciate the implications. There are moments in the story that really really matter in such a way that you could never guess at the time, and as I completed Death and the Maiden, I found myself longing to go back and appreciate them in full.
Patrick Quentin won me over with this one. Yes, the narrative is simple and it all seems vapid, but there’s a deep story buried in there. A deep one. I don’t care how close you come to guessing the identity of the killer, the motive, or any other aspect of the solution – you’re still going to end up surprised in one way or another. In that sense, this is one to remember. Death and the Maiden didn’t quite leave me with weak knees like the conclusion of The Rose in Darkness or most other Christianna Brand novels, but it did deliver in a way that has me very much looking forward to the next Patrick Quentin novel.
Interestingly enough, Death and the Maiden is the final Q Patrick novel to feature Lieutenant Trant. He would reappear thirteen years later in the Patrick Quentin novel Black Widow, and figure into several more novels published under that name.
Another piece of trivia – Death and the Maiden features a background character by the name of Hugh Wheeler. This is of course significant since Hugh Wheeler was one of the core authors that made up the Patrick Quentin writing collective.