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Death in the Back Seat

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years ago

Disney, Dorothy Cameron - Death in the Back Seat (1936) 



Death in the Back Seat (1936) is Disney's first mystery book. It is almost as clever in its plotting as Strawstacks, and forms a worthy start to her mystery career. It too is in the Rinehart tradition, although less extremely so than Strawstack.


Death in the Back Seat is notable for the ingenuity in which it enmeshes its characters in complex schemes. The book has a very small cast, much smaller than the typical Golden Age mystery, each of which is up over his head in countless mysteries. When starting to read it one wonders how Disney can produce any mystery plot at all out of such few people and such everyday looking material. Then she starts building her plot...


As in many Rinehart books, there is a criminal conspiracy, something that was treated as taboo by most other schools of Golden Age authors: one of S.S. Van Dine's rules of detective fiction states that there should be just a single villain in a mystery novel, with perhaps one minor accomplice. This single villain rule was thoroughly ignored by H. C. Bailey, but most other Golden Age writers adhered to it. Rinehart started this conspiracy tradition long before the Golden Age, in such books as The Circular Staircase (1907), and it persists in such Golden Age era Rinehart novels as The Door (1930). Both Rinehart and Disney repeatedly indicate throughout their novels that a conspiracy is afoot, instead of waiting till the end to spring it on their readers. This helps preserve fair play: the idea of a conspiracy is introduced near the start.


Disney also follows the Rinehart tradition by piling up a mountain of corpses. The genteel Golden Age tradition of one murder at the start, followed perhaps by a second crime two thirds through the book, was ignored by both writers. Death in the Back Seat is especially gruesome in this regard. One has to go to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1927) to find anything more extreme. This helps give Death in the Back Seat a nightmarish quality, combined with the constant jeopardy the hero and heroine find themselves in, and their mistreatment by the police.



Mike Grost

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