About the Murder of a Startled Lady – Anthony Abbot (1935)

AboutTheMurderOfAStartledLadyI 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.

My edition

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.

10 thoughts on “About the Murder of a Startled Lady – Anthony Abbot (1935)”

  1. Hmmm…so not worth putting a lot of money into but if I come across one still worth a read?

    I do wish , if an author is going to write an impossible mystery that they’ll spin it out as long as possible. It kind of takes all the fun out of it if you get the solution way too soon.

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    1. Yeah, I hate to say it, but this isn’t one to lay more than $10 into. With that said, it’s a great mystery that simply doesn’t deliver in the end. Rewind back to the 3/4 mark and I was going to be enthusiastically recommending it, although I would’t have elevated it to greatness. Anthony Abbot can write a story that I want to read, and I’m curious to see what others recommend by him.

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  2. Thanks for the warning – erm, the review. It seems like JJ didn’t like this very much too, so I do appreciate the red light! But I seem to recall some of Anthony Abbot’s books being well-reviewed, so I wonder how representative this title is of his mystery-writing oeuvre…

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  3. The impossibility here is a little disappointing — but, then, the sort of fakery this relies upon usually is — but it’s novel for being communicated by a medium who actually doesn’t know how she came by the knowledge in the first place, and I enjoyed that. Usually the medium or spiritualist is an unconscionable fakir, but Abbot does a good job of mixing up the expectations here and making her (and her husband) easily the most interesting representation of that profession that I think I’ve encountered in fiction.

    But, that aside, I agree that there’s not much here to get excited about. And the fact that this was included on that list ahead of a bunch of other far superior impossible crime novels is…weird, to say the least.

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      1. Yeah, I think that’s fair. It’s more a series of well-realised scenes than it is an overall novel. A shame, too, because there’s definitely something good here, but it gets lost…and how often have we seen that in this genre?

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      2. It really is a series of well realized scenes: the seance, the finding of the body, the reconstruction of the face. Even the standard interviews and investigation are dealt with in a surprisingly readable manner that could have bene deadly dull in, ahem, another’s hands. That’s why I’d read another Anthony Abbot. The wheels never came off, it just kind of sputtered to a stop. I’m sure not all of his books are like that.

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  4. And now it’s time for some curious and worthless info:
    Attention! Attention! All units! Reversal detected!

    Look at the cover. You see the spider and its web in the background and the girl up front.
    The import thing is the lady.
    Now go watch the cover for Paul Halter’s La Toile de Pénélope. The girl is in the background and both the spiderweb and the spider itself take the spotlight.
    The important thing is Pénélope the spider.

    Btw: if we, modern GAD fans, ever do a top 100 impossible crime novel list. I don’t think Startled Lady would be on it. It’s pretty forgettable, imo.

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      1. Haha. Yeah, you’re right. There’s a brief mention of one, though… If I recall correctly. And of course there’s the thing with the web which wouldn’t merit a book cover, imo.

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