Manor Minor Press is resurrecting the Jane and Dagobert Brown mysteries. Delano Ames‘ comic series, originally published between 1948 and 1959, made a little money in its time but has mostly been forgotten. After reading the first book in the series, She Shall Have Murder, in a few hours packed with much laughter and marveling at Ames’ technique, I wonder just how the remarkable amateur detectives managed to vanish.
Jane is our narrator. She is also the author of a book based on the murder of one of the clients of the law firm that employs her. The book, Jane tells us, was originally the idea of her boyfriend (later fiancé). Dagobert Brown is a dilettante with little money to expend on his hobbies. He can’t seem to settle to anything; Jane provides all the stability in their relationship. Instead of a job, Dagobert has a series of hobbies. Jane comments:
I have nursed Dagobert through several such crises before: Gregorian chant last year, followed by wildflowers and sixteenth-century French poetry. My mind is a jumble of Mixolydian modes, nipplewort, and Joachim du Bellay—to which fingerprints and strangulation are now being added. (Chapter 1*)
Dagobert, listening to Jane’s tales of work life at Playfair & Sons law firm, selects one of the firm’s more irritating clients as a potential victim. Jane will write the mystery and he will edit. Funny enough, the woman that Dagobert and Jane had chosen to be the model for their novel’s victim actually winds up murdered.
Dagobert and Jane begin investigating Mrs. Robjohn’s death after the coroner’s court rules it to be an accidental death. The pair have never gone a-sleuthing before, but Dagobert’s knowledge of so many different things and his ability to charm information out of people, coupled with Jane’s logic and bravery, make for a strong debut. What really makes this book work, though, is the relationship between Jane and Dagobert. Dagobert is in the midst of a divorce. (He married too young and to the wrong woman.) He and Jane click all through the book. They remind me of a slapstick comedy couple with they banter:
“Let’s see…Stewart says they had a row that night. Peter and Paul was the answer to the crossword clue, wasn’t it? Did you say rose foncé was you color?”
“What I like about you, Dagobert,?” I said, “is the clear, systematic way you have of putting questions, so that the simplest intelligence can see exactly how your mind’s working. Does any of this really get us anywhere?”
“No,” he admitted, “but it gives you an amazing feeling of insight and penetration to ask these keen, apparently disconnected questions. I asked a man this morning what brand of pipe he was smoking on the night of the twenty-ninth of November, and you should have seen the way I went up in his estimation.” (Chapter 20)
The pair keep up their schtick all the way through.
At points in the narrative, as Jane and Dagobert eliminate suspects and gather clues, Jane will comment on the process of writing all this up as a autobiographical novel (for lack of a better term). I can’t think of any novels as old as this one (originally published in 1948) that break the fourth wall as often as She Shall Have Murder. This is a novel that’s aware it’s a novel, with a narrator who is aware that she’s telling a story to an audience, but with a bright humor all the way through that doesn’t feel like anyone is being made fun of or condescended to.
I do hope that Manor Minor Press hurries up with the rest of the series.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
* Quotes are from the Manor Minor reprint. Page numbers are not available.