Golden Age Gals: Elizabeth Daly - Deadly Nightshade
First Published: New York, Farrar & Rinehart 1940. London, Hammond, 1948 My Edition: Felony & Mayhem 2013
Detective: Henry Gamadge
Summary: Gamadge has thought of Mitchell often over the last three month mainly ruminating on his unaccustomed role of practicing detective. An appointment which wasn’t at all disagreeable, but different from his established one as a consulting expert, who quietly terrorizes the forgers, con-men and counterfeits of the world. However with three confirmed cases and one suspected case of children being poisoned with nightshade plus the coincidental death of a state trooper, State Detective Mitchell (who we met in Unexpected Night) calling Gamadge in New York. Why? Mitchell would like Gamadge’s insights into this perplexing case since his methods and logic worked well before - plus Mitchell is calling in a favor. Both the unusual problem and Mitchell’s request propel Gamadge from his home in New York back up to Maine to see if can ferret out the culprit before anyone else gets hurt.
Review: Recently I was helping a customer in the shop and she was insistent that I read an author and I told her that while I had heard he was very good - his writing style wasn’t my cup of tea. The customer retreated for a moment and finally asked what books I did read and I told them Christie, Daly, Marsh, Rice, Alan Bradley and Rhys Bowen most recently. She asked what I really read, because those were just the books I read for work. I tried to break it to her kindly that I actually enjoyed reading these golden age greats - she made a face and was visibly unimpressed with my reading list.
While I don’t feel the need to defend my choice in books, her question did get me thinking - why? Why do I love them?
I have read mysteries my entire life in one form or another and I use to read much harder edged stuff but it left me wanting, but I didn’t really know why. A key indicator I think was the fact I didn’t read them as voraciously as I did urban fantasy, which I tore through with reckless abandon. For years I couldn’t walk through Elliot Bay Booksellers without having read the majority of their fantasy stock (not kidding). But this didn’t hold for their mystery section which was weird since I loved them. I now believe I know why…..
Murder is necessary - in the majority of mysteries you wouldn’t have a book without one. But there has been a shift in mysteries novels over the years. A shift which I have only really begun to appreciate since I started delving the depths of the golden age authors. Namely violence - language and sex have increased as well but that doesn’t bug me - but the graphic use/description of violence does. My imagination fills in the gruesomeness I read allowing it to flit easily from the page into my mind. Which in turn churns and chews on it trying to make sense of the senseless and the violent acts stick with me, longer than they probably should. I read for enjoyment and mysteries filled with violence - I find little pleasure in. Reality is gruesome enough, the news tells us so every night at six pm, I need little help imagining worst case scenarios.
Somewhere along the line mysteries begun to shift from cerebral murder mystery where the puzzle aspect takes precedent like in Poirot, Henry Gamadge or Albert Campion. Yes there is violence (without a body, they wouldn’t have much to do) but generally you are only reading about it after it happens - when the body or crime is discovered. Now there seems a need to describe the crime in detail while the perpetrator(s) are committing it - in many cases the bloodier the better.
This is why I enjoy books like Daly’s Deadly Nightshade. While the crime perpetrated in the book is against children it lacks in the violent detail department (really the crime is rather passive - poisoning - hey nightshade is in the title I am not spoiling anything). Henry Gamadge solves the crime through leaps in logic and common sense - following the rules of fair play. It simply is a splendid read and a fantastic puzzle to solve with Gamadge. Without any huge chucks of narrative devoted to the mind set of the killer, how the killer felt or the actual doing of the deed - which frankly I don’t really need to read. This whodunit method of story telling allows just a breath of space between the reader and the crime - which puts my mind at ease when I am reading because I know the writer will not violate this style.
I guess I need this bit of a buffer when I am reading - with urban fantasy it is the use of magic, mythical creatures or legendary places. In mysteries I evidently need time (historicals) or an unfashionable or old fashion you might say style of writing. I need the cerebral whodunit not the blood filled mysteries which are prevalent now. The more I read of the golden age greats the less favorably I look on the new modern style. Murder maybe necessary in mystery but the use of violence in the narrative is to easy.
An Odd Fact: Did you know that most people (or those of us who frequent the optometrist) have been “poisoned” by nightshade? Well, poisoned isn’t really the right word…perhaps “affected by” would be more accurate (but less salacious). How? Deadly nightshade or atropa belladonna (to use its formal name) is the key ingredient in the drops the eye doctor uses to dilate your eyes! Renaissance women used to use the juice of the nightshade plant to make their pupils larger - thus appearing more alluring/seductive/beautiful to the opposite sex. Even Poirot uses these drops in The Big Four in order to create the illusion he had a twin brother (making his eye color appear darker).
(picture from the NY Public Library Digital Archives of the Nightshade plant)
Now I wonder how on earth someone got the idea of sticking the juice of these deadly berries (since they’ve been used to kill husbands and wives for years) in their eyes to begin with! Seriously. Perhaps someone pulled a Hamlet and instead of pouring poison in an ear they splashed it into someone’s eyes and then noticed that - A. they didn’t die and B. they looked sexier. Or one of the many Inquisition type events tried something similar? Not a clue but I don’t think this knowledge comes from just innocent experimentation…
Second how on earth did these berry juice wielding women get anything done? These drops lasted around three days and made their vision very blurry and ultimately blind you if used habitually. But how on earth did these renaissance women go outside during the day? With their pupils dilated it meant extra light was hitting their rods and cones - it would have been awful. Seriously I went to the optometrist once on a sunny July day and thought - hey no problem I can walk home I waited an hour - I don’t need no stinking sunglasses. To this day I honestly am not sure how I navigated homewards without getting hit by a truck the sun was so blinding. I am not sure it would be brighter than if I was standing on its’ surface!
Perhaps these ladies only used belladonna (the other name for nightshade) in the winter months when days were shorter (and light weaker) or only went out at night (which would undercut the entire reason for using it to lure potential suitors with desire filled eyes - since who on earth but a half-man/half-owl could see them in the dim light - but anywhoo). Which once again leads me to the story of the most beautiful Christmas scenes I ever saw - which resulted from an eye doctor’s visit and going Christmas shopping directly afterwards (it was also at night so I didn’t try and burn my corneas out my eyes this time). The light refraction from all the glitter, tinsel, snow and ornaments is possibly one of my most beautiful memories. I do not have the vocabulary to describe the refraction of the light off these surfaces in a way to do it justice - just trust me Christmas time is the best time to have your eyes checked! The downside happened when I inspected my purchases the next day after my shopping adventure discovered I bought several items I didn’t mean to (because I thought they were something else) and/or purchasing cloths a size or two off because I couldn’t read the tag. But otherwise it was a complete success!?
In both these cases the drops put in my eyes rendered me useless! Any kind of fine detailed work was out and even daily chores proved challenging since doing things like measuring (for laundry or cooking) was difficult. Habit can overcome some obstacles - it is the only reason I got home on that July day - but not everything. I know the obvious suggestion would be only the upperclass used belladonna - and they had help - but this plant is so common anyone can use it and I don’t see the milling throng being left out of such a cheap beauty aid. So I guess what I am saying is I am once again in awe of what humans are willing to do in order to look attractive to one another.