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About the Murder of A Startled Lady

Page history last edited by Pietro De Palma 7 years ago

Abbot, Anthony - About the Murder of A Startled Lady (1935) aka The Murder of A Startled Lady


Thatcher Colt tries a new kind of informer, one with a link to the Great Beyond. Mrs. Lynn, a medium, claims she heard the "voice" of a young dead girl whose body has allegedly been cut to pieces then sunk. Fraud? That's what Colt (and the reader) think at first, but both have to reconsider their opinion when the corpse turns up right where Mrs. Lynn - oh, sorry, Madeline Swift - told it was.


Despite its paranormal overtones, "Startled Lady" reads rather like an early procedural. Realism, at least by Golden Age standards, is the greatest strength of this book. Abbot obviously did a lot of research on forensics and procedures, providing a sometimes fascinating testimony on police methods in the thirties. But this realism is also applied to the subject as well as the treatment which is grimmer than usual back then. Abbot is not afraid to handle some then-and-now controversial issues such as political corruption, religious zealotry, family oppression (you won't forget the Swifts) and even sex. Colt's final conclusions are far ahead from their time.


Still, mystery doesn't work only on a social level. Plot has also to be considered, and is sadly not as brilliant here as it might have been. Too much unfair coincidences, too much red herrings for an ultimately rather disappointing murderer. The paranormal never goes beyond gimmick level and the solution to the "prophecy" problem is sadly poor. Despite a partly redeeming finale, the reader is left with the impression of a book that might have been a masterpiece, had author been as deeply and sincerely interested in plotting as he was in realism.



About the Murder of a Startled Lady shows relationships with Abbot's earlier novels, especially About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931). Both books begin with the discovery of an unidentified corpse under mysterious circumstances. Several chapters of virtuosic detective work follow, during which Colt and nearly the entire New York City police force identify the victim. In both of these novels the opening chapters are sinister, even spooky in tone, with a macabre feel. The macabre quality is pushed to an extreme in Startled Lady. The opening chapters of that book are full of people with a show business background: the sort of cheap entertainers that might hang around carnivals or fair grounds. There are the medium and her husband in the first chapter, then the artist with a waxworks and amusement park life history in Chapter 3. These people's colorful life stories recall the circus performers in About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932). The professor in Chapter 1 of Startled Lady also recalls the savant Colt meets in Circus Queen. Abbot likes to include a whole "life history" for the characters in his novels. While it is not likely in real life that the police would have thumb nail biographies for everyone they meet, one tends to accept this as a bit of poetic license. It does add to the storytelling charm of the book, as well as making the characters more rounded.


After these excellent opening sections in Clergyman's Mistress and Startled Lady, virtually a whole new novel begins. For the first time we meet the characters of the mystery story. Up till that time we had been dealing with a discovered body, vividly described murder locations, and the police. Now we are introduced to the suspects, and a whole, conventional murder mystery ensues, with most of the focus on the motives of the suspects and their personal relationships with the victim. These later chapters in both novels are far more routine. There is much less actual detection, and what revelations ensue tend to be the result of routine police inquiries: realistic, but not very imaginative. Towards the end of both stories Colt builds a straw case against each of the characters in turn. Both books also come to a similar kind of solution to their puzzle plot, although to say more about this would spoil the reader's interest in the mystery.


The best section in the later novel is Book Two: Chapter 4. This resolves the medium subplot of the opening chapter. Abbot shows a flair for one type of impossible crime, the apparent supernatural event. Abbot does not describe the kind of physical impossibility we associate with G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and their successors. Instead, this tale is in the same genre as Craig Rice's "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" (1956), a case of apparently supernatural knowledge that eventually is explained in realistic terms.


Unfortunately, after its early sections, Startled Lady declines into a far more ordinary novel. Most of the suspects in the book are unpleasant, even psychologically abnormal. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of their emotionally disturbed personalities. There is also a consistent tone of sordidness struck throughout, something that is not typical of Abbot, and not consistent with the personality shown in his other works.


Mike Grost



Comments (1)

Ronald Smyth said

at 3:42 am on Apr 18, 2014

I'm glad to know that this is not typical of Abbott's work as it is the first of his that I've read and sordid is exactly the word that I would use to describe it. That made for an unhappy reading experience.

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