08 September 2015

Bewitched, Bothered, but Not Bewildered

Murder without Regret
E. Louise Cushing
[New York]: Arcadia House, 1954

There are two ways to approach this novel: the first is as a murder mystery, the second is as an account of four pivotal days in the life of a repressed, frustrated and somewhat unpleasant lesbian. Both lead to intertwining paths, but the latter is much more interesting.

Murder without Regret was Enid Louise Cushing's second novel, and is one of several to feature Inspector MacKay of the Montreal Police Service. He'll be the one who solves the crimes, but the roles of protagonist and narrator fall to twenty-something Barbara Hiller. Babs opens the novel by driving through the gates of the Randall mansion on Peel Street. It's been some time since her last visit. She'd once been close to Julie Randall, heiress presumptive of the Randall fortune. The two had "gone around together" for years, but then Julie met Joyce Prescott and Babs was replaced. What Babs refers to as a "bewitchment" came to an abrupt end: "It hurt at first, but I got over it."

So, here we have Babs in her car, steeling herself in anticipation of Julie, whom she hasn't seen in years. Babs is at Randall House because Julie asked her – now, that phone call was unexpected – saying something about the reading of her grandfather's will. It seems that tonight's the night the fortune becomes hers. Just a formality, really, but Julie wants Babs present.

After all that build-up, the meeting between the two comes as an anticlimax. Julie sends Babs upstairs to her bedroom, but it's just to freshen up. Once there, Babs notices a girl slumped over the vanity, places her hand on a cooling left breast, and determines that she's dead.

Who's the dead girl? Why, Joyce Prescott, of course.

Enter Lieutenant Brandy Fernley, Royal Canadian Navy. He'd met Babs once during those years she and Julie had been close. She's forgotten all about him, but not he her: "Funny, I remember you so well… Your red hair, and the way your eyes always followed Julie." Brandy has returned for a reason, though Joyce's dead body serves as a spanner in the works:
"I was going to announce my engagement to Brandy," Julie sniffed.
     "Your engagement?" I said somewhat flatly. For some unaccountable reason, I had a funny letdown feeling. 
Who killed Joyce? Who cares. By this point I wasn't so much interested in the solution to the crime as I was in getting a read on Babs. News of a second murder victim, former acquaintance Paul Hadrill, doesn't distract much, though his name brings further insight. Babs is quick to make clear that they'd "never gone around": "It was true that we'd driven a lot together – he and Julie in the back seat and me alone in front." Babs later reveals that she'd taken in the action through the rearview mirror.

Who killed Paul? As with Joyce, MacKay is on the case. Babs is somewhat helpful – much less than she likes to think – but everyone else moves on. Joyce hasn't been dead twenty-four hours before Julie invites Babs to Malcolm's, an upscale downtown restaurant. Babs, who had anticipated an intimate luncheon, is irritated to discover her old friend surrounded by women she doesn't know: "Even before I'd a chance to declare my neutrality, I was ignored with the successful rudeness cultivated by and perfected by female cats who have decided after one glance that the latest arrival is not One of Them." Babs' own feline glances linger:
Kitty Buckley was a languid, black-haired would-be beauty, with mascara that thick. I gulped when I saw her dress. It was black and very smart, but it dropped down to here in the front. I was fascinated, and practically had to tear my eyes away to take in Kathleen Haines, beside her.
Cushing's Montrealers are either catty, cold or insensitive. Even "nice Inspector MacKay" (see review below) can't help but joke with Babs at the inquest into Joyce's death. Still, the detective is dedicated, solving her murder within a matter of days. Nothing is spoiled in revealing that the killer turns out to be Julie; she's the lone character the reader might have cause to suspect.

You'd be wrong to suppose that her arrest would upset Brandy Fernley. Julie's fiancé reveals that their engagement was meant as a joke played on assembled friends. It doesn't speak well for the mystery writer that what follows comes as the novel's greatest surprise:
"So you see, even last Tuesday night I had no idea of marrying Julie.
     "Oh," I said flatly. He had seemed to expect some noise from me.
     "Yes, I decided then and there I'd like to marry you. The party Thursday night rather clinched it. How does that appeal to you?
     "Quite a lot," I admitted honestly.
There's no talk of love, no embrace, no kiss; the two don't so much as touch. And so, navy man Brandy trades an engagement of convenience for a marriage of convenience, and Babs prepares union to a man who likes nothing more than being at sea in the company of other men.

That's it, really, though an awkward page is tacked to the end in which Babs learns that she, not Julie, will be inheriting the vast Randall estate.

All in all, a strange book… and I do like strange books. I'll be reading more E. Louise Cushing. One of her mysteries is about a Montreal bookseller who finds a body in her shop.

The title is Blood on My Rug.

Favourite passage:
"You always have been longer in stores than you intended to be," she said calmly. "I think you like to talk to the salesgirls. Anyway, I didn't mind at all; it seems perfectly natural for me to wait for you."
     I grinned. She'd hit the nail on the head; it seemed perfectly natural for me. I did like chatting to salesgirls, as she well knew…

Trivia I: Montrealers, particularly residents of NDG, will enjoy the local flavour. Paul's murder takes place at 4312 Melrose Avenue, which is currently the site of a Jean Coutu parking lot. His killer walks over from Wilson using the alleyway that runs just north of Sherbrooke. One minor character works in Simpson's – disguised as "Mason's" – and is shot just up the street on Mansfield.

Yes, shot. See, I haven't given everything away.

Trivia II: The only Montreal novel I've encountered to feature not a single French-speaking character. "Madame Cecile of the French Salon in one of the large stores" receives fleeting mention.

The critics rave: "Montreal gal's poisoning sets off chain reaction; nice Inspector MacKay takes over. Badly organized, plus other structural faults but holds interest. Fifty-fifty." – Saturday Review, 1 January 1955.

Object: A compact, cheaply produced hardcover in maroon cloth with black type. Depicting the scene of the crime, the uncredited dust jacket illustration is best viewed from afar; up close it looks nothing if not bizarre. That piece of furniture is awfully high for a vanity, is it not? The keys are the size of children's teethers and those coins look like pieces of eight. I'm not bothering with the levitating purse.

The rear cover and flap features ads for other obscure Arcadia mysteries by Fred Orpet (Murder's No Accident), R.A. Braun (Murder Four Miles High), Maude M. Thomas (Wait Long, Wait Still) and Harry Walker (né Hillary Waugh; The Case of the Missing Gardener).

Access: An uncommon title, Murder without Regret appears to have enjoyed one lone printing. Just three copies are currently listed for sale online. The cheapest, Very Good in Very Good dust jacket, is going for US$25. The one you'll want, sold by a Dartmouth bookseller, is inscribed by the author. Price: C$95.

Not a single Canadian library has a copy.


  1. Are the scattered items on the cover clues? I'm only asking because the ad for Murder Four Miles High also features a mess. Or was the series just supposed to drive anal retentives insane?

    "I realized I was late. I left the stove on and went down to the police station."

    1. The description of the items on the floor is so detailed that you'd think at least one of them would be of relevance… Okay, I thought one would be of relevance. In the end, they don't mean a damn thing.

      By the way, what looks to be a very large bullet is actually a type of lipstick.