Before Ann Cleeves and Paul Johnston started using colours in the title of their novels, Frances Crane was writing her series of 26 books featuring detective Pat Abbott and his wife Jean. A quick search through my trusted HRF Keating* reference book reveals that Crane was a short story writer for magazines such as the New Yorker and Harpers Bazaar before turning to crime fiction. The fashion magazine background will come as no surprise to reader’s of her books. They are a mine of information about clothes, fashion and interior design in forties and fifties America. But the books are also beautifully plotted with a traditional reveal of the murderer towards the end.
The first book I read was The Golden Box, first published in 1942. Jean Holly, the owner of a art shop, visits her hometown of Elm Hill, Illinois. When the tyrannical owner of Fabian House dies, the town is awash with gossip, not least because of the unusual will she leaves behind. Jean’s friend Patrick Abbott is interested enough to descend on the town and investigate the death.
I have to confess that I had no idea where Elm Hill in Illinois is (I suspect it is fictional) but that hardly matters as this is presented as traditional small-town America. Where the local church is governed by a rich autocrat and all of Jean’s childhood friends have married within their small circle of acquaintances. The best aspect of the book is the relationship between Patrick and Jean, still in its early stages which reminded me a little of Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane. The book gives a clear-eyed view of marriage at that time, many of them unions of convenience: in order to have children, to get away from the constrictions of family life or simply because it was expected of them. The narration of Jean seems to be coming straight from the author – will getting involved in a relationship bring with it restrictions?
By Thirteen White Tulips, however, Pat and Jean are married and have children so I have no idea of the twists and turns that have taken place to reach this state. The children have been despatched on holiday so we once more see the mystery through the eyes of Jean who plays an active role in the investigation. Philanderer Jack Ivers has been found dead in bed, by the woman who went there to murder him. When she entered the house she noticed thirteen red tulips which had somehow changed into thirteen white flowers when she left.
This is the better of the two books, very well plotted with an underlying sense of menace. Jean’s dachshund is one of the stars of this book, so much so that there is an attempt to kill him by the murderer. Once more we get exquisite descriptions of Jean’s outfits, this time in 1953, with the influence of Dior’s ‘new look’.
The copies that I read were from the classic green penguins that I collect (see right). The covers are very dull compared to some of the others I found on the internet, one of which which I’ve used (within copyright) to illustrate this post. I’m inclined to try and get hold of a couple of the more lurid ones although I’m not sure they’re a faithful reflection of the style of narrative.
*My favourite reference book is HRF Keating’s Whodunit? published in 1982. It’s hopelessly out of date but a mine of information in relation to lesser known authors.