#97: If the Shroud Fits (1941) by Kelley Roos

Shroud FitsThere are times when it’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment when a novel doesn’t fulfil its promise, and given the intricacy of many novels of detection these can sometimes be very keenly felt.  Perhaps the detective is an absolute duffer (an accusation frequently levelled at Freeman Wills Croft’s Inspector French), or the guilty party comes disappointingly out of nowhere (as in John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber), or perhaps the solution offered up to a brilliant problem is a shade on the simplistic side (the disappearance from the locked bathroom in John Sladek’s otherwise-superb Black Aura springs to mind).  For this second novel by husband and wife team Kelley Roos, I’d say the main problem is in the selection of the victim: the setup is excellent, the characters are a delight, and come the murder…the most obvious victim is selected and the book never quite recovers.

Elsewhere, there’s enough going on to signify important progress from their entertaining-but-flawed debut Made Up to Kill (1940): where the revelation of the killer there required a hefty monologue to fill in all the gaps that needed resolving, there’s certainly much more here in the way of threads to direct your suspicions towards the appropriate party.  A truly classic piece of misdirection early on is note perfect in its bold assumption and will sail by all but the most cynical and untrustworthy of GAD readers (though, after a while, I think we all become suspicious of everything).

There’s a marked improvement in the quality of the prose, with sharper descriptions of settings and a much finer sense of New York, helped by some very effective early utilisation of the oft-overdone pathetic fallacy:

The rain was driving down with a new violence.  From somewhere in the west came the crack and then the muffled rumble of Autumn thunder.  The wind whistled in the narrow cavern of Ninety-Third Street.  And fifty blocks downtown, according to Julie, a murder has been arranged.

What this does is help keep everything on the right side of fatuous; I don’t really go in for screwball comedy – I persevered through the increasing absurdity of Alice Tilton’s Dead Ernest out of significantly more determination than enjoyment – and this is a superb example of how to be funny in detective fiction without getting funny about detective fiction.  Yes, there are coincidences, and, yes, the whole thing may come to rely on some alarmingly poor choices made by certain people, but the fundamentals of the plotting and the characterisation of those people involved still need to be grounded in something approaching reality for me.  This is done here superbly, helped by Haila Troy’s increasing unease and the hysteria that grips certain characters at certain times.

The dialogue, too, is awesome, capturing the vacuous air of a starlet who’s heard of Stalin because “he’s somebody in Europe or someplace”, or abounding in crisp wit alongside such character beats such as in the following exchange between Lieutenant Wyatt and the increasingly-exasperated photography assistant Kirk Findlay:

Wyatt scowled at his flippancy.  He said nastily, “How do you pay your rent?”

“I don’t,” Kirk snapped.  He had lost his patience.  “I live in a tree.  One of the trees at Radio City.”

Wyatt ran his eyes over Kirk’s good-looking tweeds.  He smiled a thin smile.

“And your clothes?” he asked

Kirk was getting mad.  “I made them out of the bark.  The Rockefellers are furious, but helpless.  They can’t climb.”

“You should write, Mr. Findlay.”

“You should be a detective, Mr. Wyatt.”

And, of course, I haven’t even touched on the characters yet.  If there’s a more appealing crime-solving couple than Jeff and Haila Troy – and one that skips so effortlessly over every single charming note without a single misstep – then I want to meet them.  That Jeff is kept out of the book entirely for the first third only gives you more to relish in the note-perfect line of dialogue that finally brings him into the action.  Again, the investigation  Jeff undertakes is motivated by more than just bullish belief in his own abilities – there’s something appealingly both shy and exuberant about him, as if the role needs to be played by a puppy, and this makes him and his wife wonderful company and very easy to root for.

I try to be understanding when a novel has got so many of these sort of things right and, in Roos’ (or should that be the Roos’?) defence, they got everything pitch perfect in the book that followed this – The Frightened Stiff is one of those yardstick books, if you don’t like it then you’re simply not going to enjoy classic detective fiction.  If the plot lets them down a little, and if the investigation in stymied by this as a result, at least the way it’s done, the people you get to spend time with, and the process of being swept along by it are all a huge amount of fun.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category “Evil” Eyes.

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15 thoughts on “#97: If the Shroud Fits (1941) by Kelley Roos

  1. I also have this book in my TBR pile so your review has certainly intrigued me and I wonder whether I will have similar issues or not as I have enjoyed the other two Roos’ novels that I’ve read. You’re definitely right about the use of humour. I think it is done very well in this book.

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    • The Roos are funny in a way that no-one else has matched for me. Other people have absolute genius moments, or occasional passages of hilarity, but no-one makes me grin and grin and grin at the brilliance of their observation like these two. It’s an astonishingly difficult balance and not to be dismissed lightly, even if the plot is a little lacking.

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  2. You’re correct: The Frightened Stiff is a yardstick for quality, especially of the comedic mysteries, which should be better known and acknowledged as the masterpiece that it is. Sailor, Take Warning! comes very close in matching it, but plays unfair with the motive and is not particular original in explaining the impossible murder. Still a good read. Just like this one, even if it does not measures up to their masterpiece.

    Speaking of masterpieces and favorite mystery writers of mine, I see that you are reading Herbert Resnicow’s The Dead Room!

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    • Now that Rue Morgue are no more, I’ve been stringing out the reading of this and STW as it’s not known if/when we’ll get more of the Roos novels in print again. We can at least be thankful that we’re able to praise TFS from experience, rather than waiting and waiting and then all jumping on the lone second-hand copy that crops up every five years!

      And, on the subject of OOP books, I was inspired to hunt down the Resnicow on the basis of your enthusiasm for it, so I’m now very interested to see how it turns out. Also got Jan Ekstrom’s Deadly Reunion when in New York, so expect that at some point in the coming months…

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    • I’d confidently assert that you’re definitely going to love it, Brad, but we’ve been here before. For now, I’ll settle for “it’s very unlikely that you’ll completely detest it” and let’s just play things by ear, eh?

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  3. I would go for Roos’ rather than the Roos’ since the pseudonym appears to allude to a single individual. 😛

    Thanks for the review, which has made me eager to read ‘Frightened Stiff’, and somewhat less eager to read ‘Made up to Kill’. I daresay I’ll read the latter first, so that it all ends with a bang and not a whimper. Have you read any other title by Roos that would come close to ‘Frightened Stiff’?

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    • No, I haven’t – since there are only four books available, I’m trying to make them last! Still have Sailor, Take Warning! to go, though, which is apparently very good…I imagine I’ll get to it at some point this year and then start hassling publishers about bringing the rest back!

      Doing them in order is a good idea, partly because the plots get better, true, but also because it’s interesting to see just how much they improve as authors in such a short time. They clearly have a very keen idea of what good writing is, and between them they figure it out with astonishing swiftness. Which is why their unavailability is such a shame…

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    • The first two don’t commend themselves, I’ll agree. SInce there’s only four in prtin I’m holding out on the fourth at present. Can you remember which one you read?

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        • Ah, okay, I have zero experience of any of their later stuff – quite jealous that you found one (even if it wasn’t great…). Your stated intent to try out their earlier 40s stuff seems like a sensible way to go – they excel with the great setups even in their very first two books – the ‘moment of realisation’ that a crime is going to be committed in this one is superbly atmospheric – so it bodes well that this facet of their plotting didn’t completely desert them in their later years. Hopefully you can find some cheaper copies of these Rue Morgues, and I’ll be looking forward to hearing what you make of them.

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  4. Pingback: #107: Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt Update | The Invisible Event

  5. Pingback: If the Shroud Fits (1941) by Kelley Roos | crossexaminingcrime

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