CORNELIA PENFIELD – After the Deacon Was Murdered. G. P. Putnam’s Sons; hardcover, 1933.

CORNELIA PENFIELD After the Deacon Was Murdered

   After the Deacon Was Murdered is the first of two mysteries written by this little known Connecticut author, and as such, is it (you may be wondering) forgotten gem? An honest answer has to be, “Almost, but not quite.” Forgotten, it is true, but while it has some weaknesses (and one near-fatal one), there are some very good moments to be found by plunging right in as well.

   Finding the murder victim, Jarius Hanford, in the small town of Deptford Center (near New Haven) is Geoffrey Hamilton, who is not vacationing there, but rather recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered the previous fall.

   Dashing down to the town center to report his discovery, the only person in the Town Hall is Jane Trimble, a genealogist by profession, working over some old records. The dead man is her uncle, but she receives the news with a surprising lack of distress. From page 7: “I’m not the least bit hysterical and I live among too many vital statistics to be easily upset by one more or less.”

   Nor is Miss Trimble the only interesting person in town. There is Grandpa Banks: “…eighty-five my next birthday, but sound as a dollar. Yessir!” As well as Judge Whitaker: “… without whom no one, it seemed, could take any initiative in the village,” Hamilton despairs to himself, amidst “the general footlessness of the whole conduct of the case!” And then Jane’s negro butler, Cæsar, who when asked if had heard of the deacon’s death, replies: “Yas’m. No’m. Why, the po’ old man. Howcome yo’ ask me about it, Miss Janey?”

   The investigation expands beyond the townspeople and the village folk, however. There is a gang of organized criminals working in the area — one of them is Big Slim Blivinsky — plus a fugitive from a mental institution, and a misguided newspaper reporter named Parsons who gets Hamilton even more involved than he’d intended.

   This is the sort of detective story, very popular at one time, in which an assortment of ever stranger things just keeps growing and growing, until you think that the author has no way out. But she does, more credit to her, and with more than a gentle hint that she’s gently spoofing some of the various conventions of the genre in several different way — including a last page refutation of Jane Trimble’s statement that “this has been one murder mystery with no love interest, thank Heaven!”

   Let’s back up a little. On page 137, Hamilton is talking to Dr. Newcomb about his health:

   “So far, a little murder mystery seems to have agreed with me.”

   “Perhaps. We all enjoy fiction too much not to appreciate a few thrills in real life. I confess I like to sit back with a good detective story – Edgar Wallace, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Derr Biggers or this new chap – what’s his name – Michael Scott. Like his stuff?”

   “Fairly well. I haven’t been reading much of the sort lately.”

   There is also a map, and it’s important to the solution of the case, as well as a good timetable and the establishment of solid alibis – or perhaps not. All in all, there’s an abundance of good stuff, but there’s a key aspect that’s missing, and that’s a strange unreasonable lack of curiosity at the proper time. Curious things happen, and no one – including (or maybe especially) Hamilton – asks the overtly obvious question, what’s going on?

   One case in point – and I hope I’ve made this interesting enough that you’re still with me – on page 78 Hamilton is going to bed after an exhausting day, and he finds fresh blood on his shoe. “It was stained and wet – wet with clotted blood, still fresh enough to show color on his finger.” And … he gets under the sheets and goes to sleep.

   The middle, then, is somewhat of a muddle, as you undoubtedly have gathered. It’s worth persevering, though, since the ending shows flashes of brilliance – and I have the strongest feeling that if you were to start over, from beginning to end, the whole accumulation of small hidden mysteries would all fit into place and make perfect sense after all.

   But the solution was agreeable enough, and the characters engaging enough, that after thinking about for a while, I finally decided discretion might be the wisest thing to hang on to here, and that the proverbial bird in the hand is not worth looking out for trouble when you needn’t.

   In other words, trying to be as clear as I can, if you can forgive the spots where the going is the weakest, you may find yourself enjoying this as much as I did.

   Maybe it’s because the whole affair takes place locally, a mere 70 years ago, and that always helps. But if you read only private eye and noirish pulp fiction, the chances are 80-20 that you should not even begin to take me up on this as a recommendation, no matter how well-intended I mean it to be.

— February 2004

NOTE:   My review of After the Widow Changed Her Mind, Mrs. Penfield’s second mystery novel, will be posted here soon.