For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s. It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels. The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue. The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder. Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?
The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel ‘T’ As in Trapped. It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic. While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me. Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.
Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book. Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim. Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl. And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.
But I honestly didn’t expect any better. It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same. It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be. Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.
I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie. But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.
3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded
Am I overthinking this? Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack? What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?