I really didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to read this one. It first came to my attention on the fantastic page A Locked Room Library, a goto source for must read locked room titles. Scroll past the 1981 ranking of top 15 locked room mystery novels, and About the Murder of a Startled Lady is the alphabetical first on a list of 99 other titles to read. It’s a gorgeous vintage cover, and it caught my eye immediately. The problem is, it’s damn expensive. After several years of hunting, I’d given up ever getting my hands on the elusive title. And then, in an odd turn of luck, I stumbled upon the exact Avon Books edition that I had so desperately sought, a steal for a mere eight dollars (which is about the max that I’d pay for a paperback of this era anyway).
It’s a bit strange that About the Murder of a Startled Lady made an impossible crime list, as I don’t know that I’d quite classify it as such. We’re given an enticing premise: during a seance, Aa psychic projects the spectral voice of a young woman, relaying how she was killed, chopped up, and placed into box that was then thrown into a harbor. A body is indeed found at the location, and the details are accurate down to the bullet still lodged in the skull. And yet, if you pause and think about it, there are two plausible scenarios that immediately come to mind. The fact that the psychic isn’t immediately charged with murder may be the real mystery here, but hey, this is Golden Age, so we’ll have some fun the set up.
This is a New York City Mystery to the core, and as far as NYC mysteries go, this may well be the best that I’ve read. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of the type – I can appreciate the nostalgia they may trigger for others, but give me a British mystery any day over the whole Big Apple police bit. You know what you’re getting here – an upper ranking member of the force directing an army of men who follow up on every last scrap of potential evidence. No thread goes unexamined.
Stack About the Murder of a Startled Lady against the likes of Ellery Queen or Clayton Rawson, and it’s miles more readable, vying more with the likes of, I don’t know, The Darker the Night by Herbert Brean. I didn’t fall in love with any character, nor the personification of NYC, but Anthony Abbot can tell a story that draws me in.
I don’t know if he can write a solid mystery though. Man, when the solution to the “impossibility” comes, it sucks the wind right out of the book’s sails, and we’ve still about a quarter to go. It’s just such a limp solution, and with the “how” solved, we’ve only the puzzle of who committed the crime. The problem there is that when it comes down to it, I doubt that any reader is really going to care which suspect gets fingered in the end. It’s one of those puzzles where someone ends up being the killer, rather than a reveal that sucks the breath out of you.
Overall it’s a fine story though. I think the fact that it made a top impossible crime list had me overly hoping for a clever miracle of a solution. If you simply approached this as a whodunnit, you’d more likely find yourself pleasantly surprised with a clever set up, even if the story somewhat fizzles in the end. I am interested in seeing if Anthony Abbot wrote anything better than this, but yeah, I wouldn’t exactly go through any trouble to lay your hands on this.
The 1944 Avon Books Murder Mystery Monthly edition of About the Murder of a Startled Lady is part of a series of mostly unheard of authors, although it does include Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (oddly lacking the “The”). These books have wider than normal pages, as well as a small typeface. My edition runs 155 pages, but I have to think this would be 200 pages in the more typical format.