The Double Man, Helen Reilly, Dell Book 732
We have several stacks of vintage paperbacks on the front desk, mostly so customers can appreciate their fantastic covers, but there’s more to them than that, and many are well worth reading, even if they’re by authors few have heard of today. Both prolific and popular in her time, Helen Reilly (1891-1962) is unfortunately one of those highly competent authors of yore whose words have been largely obscured by the sands of time.
Despite the fact that the title I picked up, 1952’s The Double Man, is billed as "An Inspector McKee mystery," the dour Scotsman who is Reilly’s most famous creation makes only a cameo appearance. Reilly has been praised for breaking the mold of the oft-derided "woman’s mystery," but I found that most of the good the good stuff in the book derives from the unique vision of a discerning, intelligent female. Although it’s never as respected as familiarity with the latest criminal slang or the caliber of various guns, there’s a kind of genius in Reilly’s ability to position her main character Tess Aiken in the proper place, time and social strata by describing what she’s wearing and the reaction of the people around her to it:
The collective gaze was fastened solidly on the young woman being served, on her slender figure, her smooth creamy skin, hair the color of a new penny, on her face that was at once delicate and strong, on her expensive polo coat and flat-heeled shoes, her pigskin gloves. It seemed as though they couldn’t get enough of her.
Tess is the widow of the popular and wealthy Hanley Aiken, who fled to this small seaside village after Tess left him, sailed his yacht out into rough seas and shipwreck, and was never seen again, his foolhardiness generally presumed to have been a form of suicide. Tess, however, knows that behind the domestic facade their marriage was a sham, Hanley having gone to his vacation "cottage" not out of grief over her abandonment, but in active pursuit of his latest mysterious paramour. She returns to the scene of what only she knows was a crime and soon discovers that there are those violently interested in having her leave as soon as possible, dead or alive.
A characteristic insight of women mystery writers is provided by the cold eye cast on other women, particularly the ultra-feminine cutie pies whose wiles seem to so easily hypnotize credulous men, the femme in this case being Nina Bell, the smug fiancé of Hanley’s step-brother Den Churchill, the man proper Tess is furiously trying to suppress her attraction for.
Nina Bell was sitting on the yellow floor, long legs tucked under her, her black skirt spread around her in a fan from which the rest of her rose, triumphant and glowing.
Another pervasive theme in the "woman’s mystery" is the relative powerlessness of the female protagonist in a paternalistic society. Condescended to by the police, who characterize her as overemotional, hysterical or just plain crazy, Tess is forced into a passive situation where she can only convince them of the seriousness of her situation by putting her own life in danger.
The events of the day could scarcely have been called tranquilizing, and there was something about the wide unprotected opening into the night that had made her uneasy all evening.
Although Tess escapes, another murder follows, and the powers that be have to finally admit that Hanley’s death was not the result of her caprices, but part of a larger picture, one that is foregrounded by the wealthy, would be patroness of the arts Elouise Waine. Unlike Nina Bell, the elderly Waine can no longer use sex appeal to manipulate, but instead terrorizes her circle of dependent acolyte artists with her money and social position.
The woman opened doors to strange worlds, places you must bend and twist and crawl to enter.
Finally Inspector McKee arrives, but even he can’t unravel the mysteries until Tess has once again been placed in grave danger. Like much of the genre, there’s a slightly saccharin whiff of romance in this "woman’s mystery," but other than that I found The Double Man to be a quick moving, expertly written example of the kind of straight forward mystery that’s only too rare today.