Mystery Review: Death on the Aisle, Frances & Richard Lockridge (1942)
“I suppose it’s always a mistake to bump into a murderer.” - Mrs. North, Death on the Aisle, Frances & Richard Lockridge
Death on the Aisle is the fourth of out twenty-six Mr. and Mrs. North novels written by husband and wife duo Frances and Richard Lockridge. These novels were published at an impressive clip from 1940 until 1963, when Frances suddenly passed away. Mr. and Mrs. North (Jerry, a publisher, and Pam, a housewife), are charming amateur detectives, managing to stumble into murders at an alarming rate, with Pam taking the lead on actually solving them. (Someone, please, consider writing a twist on one of these series where it turns out that the so-called amateur detectives have been behind every murder they've "solved" all along ...)
Back to the book at hand: Death on the Aisle is set primarily in a Broadway theater over the course of twelve hours, the book kicks off when Lieutenant Detective William Weigand's plans to get married that afternoon are rudely interrupted by a murder. Dr. Carney Bolton, womanizer and angel investor in the play Two in the Bush has been murdered, a cheap ice pick stabbed into the back of his neck. Naturally, the Norths are there. Just as naturally, they - especially Pam, in fine Lucy Ricardo fashion - insert themselves into the middle of the investigation.
The book does a good job of setting up various potential murderers, and gives the reader a fair shot at working out which of the various suspects might have done it, although I thought the conclusion was fairly obvious. However, the Norths are charming, and the book really picks up in the back third or so, after a second murder has occurred. It's towards the last fifty pages, when the Lockridges cleverly use shifting narrative voices, just enough withheld information, and the phrase "You turn right, here" to chilling effect, that I really got excited about what the Lockridges were doing.
I do have a some quibbles. There are a few too many characters to keep track of - especially without much to flesh out the character, most of them seem like sketches rather than people - so I found myself having to flip back to the beginning to remember who was who. The book has a heavy emphasis on timetables, which is where my eyes tend to glaze over, especially when they don't really have a huge impact on figuring out who the murderer is. There are a few places where it feels like their editor did a sloppy job cleaning up descriptions, and fair warning, this book suffers from some of the common prejudices of the 1940s in its descriptions of homosexual and African-American characters.
Still, putting these issues aside, Death on the Aisle the perfect kind of mystery read for a summer vacation, light and whimsical enough that you can race your way through it late at night and immediately fall asleep, quite possibly triumphant that you'd cracked the case just ahead of Pam and Jerry. I'd also highly recommend for someone who loves Rex Stout's New York world of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Pam North would drive both of them crazy, but she would fit right in. (It might also appeal to someone who loves Nick and Nora Charles, but it doesn't have that undercurrent of darkness you get in Dashiell Hammett's books, so I think it might be a little insubstantial for a Hammett fan.)
In sum - three Sherlocks and a Phalaenopsis Aphrodite from Wolfe's orchid rooms to Pam for her detective work. The best part of reading this book was realizing I had twenty-five more chances to spend several hours of the with the Norths when I wanted a palate cleanser mystery to solve.
This book pairs well with crabmeat cocktails and a lemony beverage of your choice. The Norths enjoy Noilly Prat vermouth cocktails, but I'd personally choose a pitcher of light and fizzy lemonade myself as the best companion to a light and fizzy book.
Many thanks to the team at Mysterious Press for providing an advance galley for this review. As an Amazon affiliate, I use affiliate links, but I'm all for supporting your nearest indie bookstore as well. All opinions are my own.