Turn of the Table – Jonathan Stagge (1940)

With the exception of Death’s Old Sweet Song, Jonathan Stagge novels are notoriously hard to find.  Tracking down a nice looking paperback is especially difficult, even more so if you try to purchase in my bargain bin price range.  Imagine my jealousy then when Brad from Ah Sweet Mystery mentioned to me that he’d snagged a copy of Turn of the Table for a mere nine dollars.  I hadn’t even recalled seeing Turn of the Table available, much less in a gorgeous Popular Library edition, and I swear I had just been hunting for Stagge a day or two before.  I was compelled to take another look, and imagine my delight when I found another copy of Turn of the Table for the same unbelievable price of nine dollars.  I snatched it up immediately.

What followed was immediate guilt/confusion, as it sank in that I may well have purchased the exact same copy that Brad had told me about.  That guilt was compounded a few days later when my copy arrived in the post, and Brad mentioned that his still hadn’t come.  Yeah… I stole this book for him by some quirk of the online shopping cart…

Actually, no.  Brad’s copy did eventually show up, which saved my conscience a bit of weight (although I missed out on some most secret gloating).  It leaves us though with the perplexing mystery of how two copies of a Popular Library edition of a Stagge novel that I’ve never even seen for sale before (nor offered since) showed up for the price of nine dollars on the exact same day.  My copy is definitely the real deal, so I guess someone was just unwittingly offloading a library containing some duplicates.

Anyway, to the book: yeah, honestly, it kind of sucks.  I don’t know why I keep hunting down these Jonathan Stagge / Patrick Quentin / Q Patrick novels, because for the most part they aren’t that great.  I suppose I’m looking for another fix reminiscent of what I got out of Cottage Sinister and Death and the Maiden.  Well, I didn’t get that here.

The writing collective that published the Stagge/Quentin novels are competent enough writers, in that you’ll overall enjoy the general vibe of the stories.  Where they suffer is that many of the plots don’t offer anything that really satisfies what a Golden Age mystery reader is probably looking for.  Turn of the Table is much in the same camp as Death, My Darling Daughters and Death for Dear Clara in that while the journey is decent enough, there just isn’t really any meat on the bone when it comes to the mystery.

Turn of the Table finds Stagge series amateur detective Dr Westlake in the city, having traded houses (and practices) for the summer with another doctor.  Westlake (42) spends his evenings creeping on his teenage neighbors using their pool, and through such good graces finds himself embroiled in the drama next door.  Said drama concerns table tipping, which is basically a seance in which participants sit around a table and listen to it mysteriously knock out the letters of the alphabet.  Good god, can you imagine counting out letters – in the dark, with no paper to track things, mind you – just for this one sentence alone?  ’T’ by itself would be twenty knocks, and you’d be sitting there for over a minute just to get out the word “the”.  Plus, there’s no punctuation!  If I were at the helm, I’d have the whole mystery revolve around a misunderstanding due to the lack of an Oxford comma, but I digress.

Anyway, during a table tipping session, the ghost doing the tapping forecasts the death of one of the members of the seance, who in turn promptly drops dead.  Worse, it appears that Dr Westlake, in an attempt to save the victim, may have accidentally administered a fatal dose of poison.

I kind of hate summarizing plots of these mediocre books because it probably makes them sound more interesting than they are.  The seance isn’t creepy at all, the bit where Westlake may be fingered for the crime is tiresome, and there’s nothing really grabbing about this plot hook that so many other authors could have done wonders with.

The cover of my Popular Library edition sports the question “was the killer a vampire?”, while the back asks “vampire or werewolf?”  This comes from another subplot where some unseen character is going around biting people on the neck.  Which… just doesn’t work out, because there’s never really any vibe of the supernatural.  And it’s just silly, because characters are hiding the fact that they’ve been bitten by someone, and apparently some characters even know who is doing the biting but won’t say who.  It’s one of those subplots that just feels unnatural and you can tell it’s going to have a weak explanation.  And yeah, the explanation behind it all is of the sort that makes me not want to read stories like this at all.  Books like this feel plotted for the screen, where you can just tune out and take in the drama, but in written form it’s honestly just weak.

As ridiculous as it is, Turn of the Table has a respectably lengthy ending that gives you plenty of details tying things all together.  There’s no clever epiphany to be found, but if you can sit back and turn off your brain a bit you’ll get a solid fifty pages of revelations and twists, as canned and predictable as some may be.  It’s like the incredibly dumbed down summer blockbuster version of a denouement, in that it kind of gives you what you want, but honestly, it’s not what you want.

And yet, you’ll probably catch me returning to Quentin/Stagge in a few months.  I just can’t explain it, but I’ve seen enough good that I just want to capture it again.  Maybe eventually I’ll figure out the career arc enough to realize where the danger zones lie, but for now I’m picking random cards and my hands haven’t been good.

Turn of the Table was apparently also published under the title “Funeral for Five”, which makes absolutely no sense to me, as I’m not sure which of the characters the “five” would refer to.  There aren’t five deaths.  Maybe there are five core family members?  I couldn’t be bothered to count.

11 thoughts on “Turn of the Table – Jonathan Stagge (1940)”

  1. My story is even more ridiculous than yours: I keep snatching these up whenever one of them becomes available, and I haven’t even read one of them through!!! Yes, despite the fact that nobody seems to like these, I keep collecting them! We’ve got a sickness, my friend, and we have to do something about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does make zero sense, but we keep doing it, don’t we? It seems like 80% of my time hunting for books these days is Stagge/Patrick. For one there are these great Popular Library editions, plus I think I’ve gotten a sense of the availability of most other books on my to-buy list and just don’t put as much heart into them.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Well, congrats to you and Brad on becoming Book Twins!
    What a great setup you describe there. Shame to hear it’s wasted. Always intrigued to see a review of one of the Patricks Quentin. Aside from the most well-known ones there’s so little info on them, so I guess someone has to inform the rest of us! I suppose there could be a reason those other books are so little known, though…

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  3. Sorry to hear this one didn’t work for you. Hope you find an affordable copy of Stagge’s The Scarlet Circle as that is my favourite. Despite Dawn being a bit annoying, I enjoyed that one and have it in the Popular Library edition without breaking the bank. Unfortunately, available copies are scarce and pricey.

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  4. I’m sure I’ve read a couple of these Jonathan Stagge / Patrick Quentin / Q Patrick novels but all I can recall about them was being very underwhelmed. I know I put them in my “don’t read this author again” category.

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  5. I very much prefer their “Puzzle” series featuring the recurring character Peter Duluth to the Stagge novels. I recently read “Death My Darling Daughters” and found it underwhelming.

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    1. I’ve only read Puzzle for Players and was a bit underwhelmed (although there was a great scene towards the end). I’m under the impression some of the other books in the series are more of the thriller sort. I have Puzzle for Pilgrims and Puzzle for Puppets. I also have Black Widow, and have been meaning to get around to it.

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  6. I enjoyed both ‘The Scarlet Circle’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’ very much. Unlike several folks posting here, I am also very fond of ‘Death, My Darling Daughters’ though I must admit that it is because of the emotional gut punch at the end rather than the plot/mystery itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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