Death for Dear Clara – Q Patrick (1937)

I’ve been wanting to get back to Q Patrick ever since reading Cottage Sinister earlier this year.  The author collective known as Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge, and Q Patrick has been a bit of a mixed bag for me, but Cottage Sinister provided a marvelous British village mystery that felt like it could have come from the pen of Agatha Christie during her better years.  The problem is that these Q Patrick books are very hard to find, much less for the price range that I’m willing to pay.  When I spotted a Popular Library edition of Death for Dear Clara for cheap, I snatched it up.

The story concerns Clara Van Heuten, a respected fixture of New York high society.  She runs a literary advice agency, reviewing manuscripts on the behalf of fledgling authors.  The story kicks off with a day in the office, and throughout the day, Clara receives seven visitors.  Her “gargoyle faced” secretary (who will later turn out to be pretty once some rouge is applied) provides witness to the comings and goings, which is a fortunate piece of evidence, since Clara ends the day slumped over her desk with a knife buried in her back.  The obvious solution is that the final visitor committed the crime, but it turns out that there’s a little known rear entrance to Clara’s office.  Anyone could have snuck in and committed the murder.

I struggled to get into this book because the setup lacks any real hook.  There’s little question about how the crime was committed, and of the circle of suspects that the authors decide for us are relevant, there are no strong alibis.  As such, it’s a very open ended matter of figuring out the motive alone.  That’s not to say that I need an impossible crime or unbreakable alibi in every book, but I feel like other stories create a more compelling mystery that you feel invested in.  In the case of Death for Dear Clara, the victim isn’t interesting, her job wasn’t interesting, and none of the suspects are particularly interesting; they’re all the celebrities of some sort that American authors seemed to cram in their stories (seriously, is there a GAD mystery set in NYC that doesn’t feature an actress?)

We end up with ten or so suspects – the police rule out a “sneak thief” committing the crime because apparently they wouldn’t have noticed the back door, which opens on a fire escape – and all of the suspects are extremely evasive when questioned.  That makes the interviews drag, as you can tell the characters are constantly lying.  Yeah, I get the authors are going for a “what do they all have to hide?” vibe, but I find it more frustrating than intriguing.

For the first 120 or so pages, I really struggled to not just put down the book.  What kept me going was detective Timothy Trant (here in his first outing), who I had previously enjoyed in the excellent Death and The Maiden.  Trant is a style-forward Princeton-educated investigator, who Q Patrick positions as the antithesis of your typical mystery detective.  Honestly he isn’t much different, but he does have a suave sense of appeal, and I can’t help but always hope that he ends up with the romantic interest in each book; in this case the “gargoyle faced” secretary.

Somehow Death for Dear Clara sucked me in eventually.  Come the denouement, I was glued to the story, and the way that Trant lets loose with a barrage of theories had my head constantly turning.  There’s no “oh my gosh, that’s brilliant” twist, but this is about as rollercoaster of a finale as they come, and beats out more famous endings such as The French Powder Mystery.

So I’m oddly conflicted on this one.  While I was reading it I couldn’t quite comprehend the type of mystery that the authors were going for.  The best I could make was that it was of the “written for Hollywood” vein, where if you could get an attractive cast you’d have some nice drama with all of the subterfuge, and you could watch the suspects spar with the police.  While that may translate better to the screen than the type of mystery that I enjoy, I don’t think it plays well on the written page.

And yet, that was a pretty fine ending.  I don’t want to oversell it, but it does pay off in the end.  So, not a book worth going out of your way to track down, but it does appear to have been made recently accessible by Mysterious Press.

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