Death of a Doll was first published in 1947 and has been reissued by Agora Books. Like the British Library Crime Classics, it offers an insight into both the society it portrays, and the history of the genre.
Ruth Miller is excited to be moving into Hope House, a boarding home for young single women in New York City. Two of her friends at the department store where she works live there, and the conditions are much more comfortable than her private rental. However her mood abruptly changes when she arrives to book in at the reception, surrounded by staff and residents. She is terrified for reasons which the reader cannot immediately understand. The next night there is a party at Hope House where the girls and staff dress in identical doll costumes. At the end of the night, Ruth is found dead, having apparently fallen from a window several floors up.
The police consider it a suicide, and there it might have ended, except that one of her well-heeled customers takes an interest. She brings in her friends, an unlikely combination of a private investigator and former police officer called Mark East and two spinster sleuths from New England, Bessy Petty and Beulah Pond, who she invites to visit. (Coming to the novel cold, this feels like an abrupt shift, but this is the third book in the series and earlier books apparently explain how they all came to know each other.) While Mark employs his police contacts and knowhow, the two women have a number of ingenious tricks of their own and between them they work towards a resolution – but not before there are further incidents at the hostel.
This is an odd little book, because of the tension between golden age froth and social realism. On the one hand, you have the investigators, particularly Bessy and Beulah, who treat the death as an amusing puzzle. The mechanics of the mystery are also a bit tedious. They largely concern conflicting accounts of who went up and down in the elevator and when on the night of the party (complicated because they are all wearing basically the same costume). I did zone out at that point. It was confusing at the start because there are a large number of young women all introduced at once, and sometimes they are referred to by their first name and sometimes their last.
However, there is much to enjoy in the book. The characters are all brilliantly drawn. It is packed with fast, often funny dialogue and sharp observation. The novel also offers a fascinating depiction of a particular world – the young women drawn to the city, experiencing independence for the first time and living and working away from their families and community. The relationships between the young women are subtly drawn, their friendships, conflicts and rivalries. It also has a matter-of-fact depiction of a lesbian relationship between two of the senior staff at Hope House.
Death of a Doll is entertaining enough story and if you’re a devotee of the genre it’s an interesting, if at times uneasy, combination of cosy and more psychologically driven mystery.
I received a copy of Death of a Doll from the publisher via Netgalley.
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