I’m just back from an excellent event which was held in in the British Library on Saturday. Bodies from the Library is now in its third year and attracted a record number of attendees this time around. This is a testament to the organisers and to the continuing popularity of Golden Age crime.
I did a short talk on Elizabeth Daly, a writer from New York whose Henry Gamadge detective novels were published between 1940 and 1951. Her books incorporate many Golden Age themes and below is a summary of my talk. I hope you enjoy it!
I came to Elizabeth Daly through my collection of classic green penguin crime novels. When I first started collecting them, I was looking, in particular, for new women writers from the golden age. The penguin classics introduced me to, among others, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Frances Crane and, of course, Elizabeth Daly.
She’s an interesting person to talk about because, as a writer, I’m always interested in the authors behind the books and it’s quite difficult to find any information on Daly. We do know was that Daly was born 1878 in New York City, daughter of a judge and niece of the playwright, Augustin Daly. After her BA at Bryn Mawr college and MA at Columbia University she taught English and produced plays for her students. Meanwhile her early short prose appeared in periodicals of the time.
It wasn’t until she was sixty that her first full length novel was published. Unexpected Night featuring detective Henry Gamadge. In the green penguins that I collect, the section for author information doesn’t have anything about Daly but gives a potted bio of her detective Henry Gamadge. Gamadge is an intelligent, well-educated upper-class New Yorker who is an expert on antiquarian books, maps, prints and autographs. He lives in New York’s fashionable Murray Hill district and although ostensibly working as an expert on old papers, he often undertakes investigations connected to his work.
So we’re not talking about the Mean Streets of Gotham. Anthony Boucher said Gamadge, “…is a man so well-bred as to make Lord Peter Wimsey seem a trifle coarse.” Gamadge appears in all sixteen of Daly’s crime novels published between 1940 and 1951 and, as the series develops, he acquires a wife, Clara, children, servants, assistants and pets, all of whom play a role in the stories.
If you can, it’s worth trying to read Daly from the beginning. With each successive book we get to know Henry’s coterie, all of whom become recurring characters and play a role in the investigations. For example, a man David Malcolm is accused of murder in Any Shape or Form. He’s invited at the end of the book to become Gamadge’s assistant. In the next book Somewhere in the House you meet Malcolm’s future wife, who in turn helps harbour a fugitive in The Book of the Crime.
Familiar faces dip in and out of the stories. I’ve seen some criticism of Daly that characterisation is a bit thin. Plot wins over character. I don’t think that’s particularly true if you read the series. You go back to the books because of the series arc as well as the individual crime stories.
Daly’s best known these days by the fact that she was referred to by Agatha Christie in an interview with Lord Snowdon as one of her favourite authors. A few of the editions that I have from the 1980s make much of this fact. I’ve also seen reference to The Clocks Agatha Christie’s book 1963 novel where Poirot gets bored and starts to dissect the novels of various fictional writers. Christie fans have tried to link the fictional writers to real life ones and this is what Poirot has to say about someone called Louise O’Malley. “Those brownstone mansions in New York…Those exclusive apartments and soulful snobberies, and underneath deep unsuspected seams of crime run their uncharted course.’ If it’s not about Daly it certainly could be.
Probably on the reasons Christie enjoyed her books so much is the complex plotting which incorporates many of the Golden Age themes : forged wills, warring families, jewellery thefts, locked rooms, and, of course, murders that appear to defy rational explanations.
New York Herald Tribune said of Deadly Nightshade (1940): “The plot thickens amazingly toward the end, with a flurry of romantic gambits, and Miss Daly proves herself as deft at juggling hints as the armchair sleuth could wish.”
Gamadge’s work as an antiquarian print expert influences the plots of the books. Many of Daly’s novels hinge on a work of literature Murders in Volume 2 (1941) features the poetry of Byron, The Book of the Dead (1944) revolves around Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Book of the Lion (1948) involves a lost Chaucer manuscript. Puzzles also feature in Daly’s books. In Death and Letters, a woman being held prisoner by her family gets a message to Gamadge via a crossword puzzle.
The Gamadge books are set in New York society and their environs. They take place in a specific milieu. We don’t see ordinary working people unless they’re servants. So Daly’s not going to be for everyone. I personally prefer these books that take place in the city however elite it might come across. Her books that take place in upstate NY, such as Nothing Can Rescue Me, have the feel of generic country house mysteries which are less satisfactory than her city based stories.
Daly is excellent at showing the cracks in polite society. Beneath the veneer of prosperity there are warring families with an eye on the wills of elderly relatives and young men preying on wealthy widows. In my favourite Daly novel, And Dangerous to Know, we see a wider stratum of NY society than in other books. Both behind the facades of the brownstone buildings but also the old houses that have been divided up into flats, the NY hotels where the rootless wealthy live in suites and the busy department stores where shoppers hustle for the latest bargain. The death is horrible. A missing girl is found in a flowerbed where Gamadge spots the depression in the earth. Daly never shies away from gruesome deaths and there’s something particularly disturbing about finding a missing girl under the flowers. The novel also has a strong sense of evil throughout.
Daly’s books aren’t ghost stories but for readers who like the unrealised possibility of the supernatural, Daly does like to occasionally add a dash of this into her books. In Evidence of Things Seen, Clara Gamadge’s vacation is disturbed by the apparent visitation of a ghost dressed in a poke bonnet and dress. In Murders in Volume 2 a woman claims to be the same person who disappeared with the works of Byron a hundred years earlier having ‘vacationed on an astral plane’. In Nothing can Rescue Me mysterious messages that appear on a typewriter are claimed by one of the suspects to be automatic writing produced by the supernatural. These elements are usually quickly dismissed but good fun to read.
Daly often embraces the weird. In Somewhere in the House a dead woman’s waxwork effigy has been bricked up in a hidden room for twenty years. Gamadge is asked to attend the unlocking of the room and he’s appalled and, as readers, so are we.
The culprit is often the least likely suspect. To the jaundiced eye this can be a bit tiring and occasionally you can see the denouement coming a mile off. But, I think Daly often manages to pull it off. In The House without a Door and Nothing Can Rescue Me, Daly plays fair with the reader but still manages to surprise with her choice of murderer.
The New York Times Book Review on Evidence of Things Seen (1943): “So ingenious is the plot of this story that we feel safe in predicting that most readers will be completely fooled and will then wonder how they ever happened to muff the solution.”
So, how can you read the author in the UK? The House Without the Door (1942), Nothing Can Rescue Me (1943) & Evidence of Things Seen (1943) were published in the vintage green penguins and these are pretty easily found in second hand bookshops. Bantam books in the US reprinted some of the series in the 1980s and they’re slightly harder to find but they also do appear in bookshops. However luckily for us, US publisher Felony and Mayhem have reprinted the whole series and the physical copies are available in the UK from Amazon. Unfortunately they’re not available on kindle although they are on the US site so there’s clearly a rights issue which is a shame.
If you like the Daly mysteries and are looking for more Gamadge books, as a footnote, Elizabeth Daly’s niece Eleanor Daly Boylan wrote five continuation novels featuring Clara Gamadge, Henry’s wife. Set in the late eighties and early nineties, after Henry’s death Clara moves to Florida but, in the first book, is persuaded back to New York to help solve a mystery. They’re in the tradition of contemporary cosy mysteries and perhaps not as complexly plotted as Daly’s books, but I think they take the elements of Elizabeth Daly’s sense of fun and I think they’re certainly worth a read.
Thanks to all who enjoyed the talk and mentioned that they’d be seeking out Daly to read. I hope you enjoy her. Do let me know how you get on.