Sat 27 Sep 2008
DIG ME LATER – Miriam-Ann Hagen.
Mercury Mystery 157; digest-sized paperback; no date stated, but generally accepted as being 1951. Hardcover edition: Doubleday/Crime Club; 1949. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition, August 1949.
I mean no offense to anyone named Hortense, or who knows anyone with the name Hortense, but it IS an old-fashioned name, I believe you have to admit, and a series of mysteries with a leading character named Hortense Clinton is going to be considered light-hearted from the outset, whether it is true or not.
But true it is, or at the least, this second of three mysteries she was involved in certainly is. When a murder occurs across the hall to her in her Manhattan apartment, Hortense accidentally confronts the killer with her night clothes on, blemish cream on her face, chin strap on, and a band across her forehead.
Of course squatting down on the floor as she was, all she could see before she was knocked unconscious was the killer’s pant legs and shoes. But if the killer was the dead man’s nephew making his getaway as she was putting her milk bottles out, why did he take the time to take her diamond watch?
As it happens, the answer to that question is clear to any reader who’s been paying attention and has read Chapter One carefully, so anyone who reads detective stories for the detective work in them isn’t going to find much of any substance to mull over in this one.
But the characters are what might keep you reading, as the did me, somewhat wacky and somewhat confusing, or confused themselves as to why so many of them end up with Hortense in a resort hotel in Nova Scotia where she flees when her notoriety in Manhattan proves to be too much for her.
The killer is obvious enough in retrospect, but there are plenty of false trails to be followed and examined carefully before the final denouement. Most – but not all – the questions are answered, and Hortense Clinton survives to be involved in another murder another day. (See the bibliography below.)
But before getting to that, I didn’t do any research on the author before beginning the book – I seldom do, as I prefer to let the book speak for the author, not his/her reputation or background. I almost never even read the blurbs on the jacket flaps or the back cover.
So it took me a while to place Ms. Hagen’s style of writing, even though I have to admit that I should have known. It’s a style that feels itself necessary to explain the smallest detail, to spell out things so that the reader will fully understand, and yet is smooth enough, and clever enough to stay interesting. I am not denigrating it in any way. It’s a style of writing I most certainly and definitely admire.
I wish I could explain better what I mean, but here’s a sample, and maybe that will help. Picking a page and a selection at random from the first chapter, take this as an example. Hortense is being asked by the police to identify the nephew’s shoes:
“Sure, Miss Clinton,” said the detective. “Sure. We don’t expect you to say it was this man’s feet you saw. That would be asking too much. We just want you to tell us if it could have been this man’s feet, that the ones you saw weren’t so much bigger or smaller or anything that you’d know they couldn’t have been his or even that you’d think maybe they couldn’t be his.”
They worked at it, trying to pin her down to some sort of statement, but Hortense refused to say more that what she could say with certainty, until finally, in a burst of frankness, they told her exactly what they wanted of her, and to that she had to give them the answer that satisfied them….
Which was, to cut the story off short, that she wouldn’t later be able to testify in court that it couldn’t have been the man that the suspected of being the killer.
I don’t know if that was enough of a sample for you to tell, and maybe you never heard of Aaron Marc Stein, also known as George Bagby and Hampton Stone, but the writing is identical. But if you have, then I’m sure you spotted the similarity, and probably even before I made the connection. And if you’ve been paying attention to this blog, as I should have been, or at least my only claim for ignorance was that I forgot, in one of Mike Nevins’s columns for M*F, he happened to have mentioned in passing that Miriam-Ann Hagen was Aaron Marc Stein’s sister.
The title comes from a bit of jazzy jargon from the 1940s that I don’t think was used appropriately in the novel, but to expand the context a little, take a look at the three mystery novels that Miriam-Ann Hagen wrote, courtesy of Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin:
HAGEN, MIRIAM-ANN (1903-1984)
Plant Me Now (n.) Doubleday 1947 [Hortense Clinton; Train]
Dig Me Later (n.) Doubleday 1949 [Hortense Clinton; Canada]
Murder-But Natch (n.) Doubleday 1951 [Hortense Clinton; Ship]
[UPDATE] 09-28-08. I asked Mike Nevins to read my comments and then to consider the possibility that Aaron Marc Stein might have written the Hortense Clinton books under his sister’s name. Here’s his reply. I’m sure he’s right, but the thought lingers on…