LESLIE FORD – The Woman in Black

Popular Library K63; reprint paperback, December1963. Hardcover: Charles Scribner’s Sons, May 1947. British hardcover: Collins (Crime Club), 1948. US hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 1948 [3-in-1 edition]. Other US paperback editions: Dell #447, mapback, 1950; Popular Library 60-2443, circa 1969. Magazine appearance: The Saturday Evening Post, a seven-part weekly serial from January 18 through March 1, 1947.

Woman in Black

   As far as I can recall, this is the first mystery by Leslie Ford that I can recall reading. In doing so, it was with a small amount of bias, shall we say, when I started, having been given negative impressions about her work from others who have read her recently. This negativity was said to lie in Ms. Ford’s attitudes toward racial minorities, but perhaps by 1947, when The Woman in Black was published, this lack of sensitivity had begun to disappear from her work.

   Mrs. Grace Latham’s housekeeper Lilac is apparently black, but it is not so stated. The only way you will realize it is from her speech patterns. Here’s a sample, taken from page 19, the first time we meet her in the story. She’s helping to hide a young married woman who has come to Mrs. Latham for some advice:

    “You come downstairs with me, child,” she said. She took Susan by the arm. “Mis’ Grace’ll go to the door herself. You settle you’self and come with me.”

   By itself I think this is not only fairly innocuous but a pretty good example of a way with words. What the reader gets in these two lines, with no further description, a pretty good picture in his or her mind of who Lilac is and what she may even look like. Is it harmful? Is it demeaning? I’m predisposed to say no, but if you were to press me, I don’t think that it would be too difficult to convince me that any negative stereotyping, wherever or however it occurs, is ever entirely wholesome.

   In any case, however, any racial attitudes that are displayed in the author’s earlier books, even done unconsciously, do not manifest themselves in this one to any degree more visibly than this. Not that I’m saying that the case is closed, but I also think that the backgrounds and settings of mystery novels, taken as a snapshot in time, do more to illustrate the attitudes and opinions of everyday people — for better or worse — than any number of history textbooks I ever studied from when I was in school.

   Grace Latham, who appeared in many of Ms. Ford’s books, is a widow and apparently a Washington socialite of some stature and renown. She has also made her mark as a sleuth of some distinction, even if only peripherally, as in this one, since the bulk of the real detective work is done by Colonel Primrose’s stalwart assistant, Sergeant Buck, and Captain Lamb of the Washington police department, who also appeared in many of Mrs. Latham’s adventures, but not all.

Woman in Black

   After retiring from the military, John Primrose and Phineas T. Buck operated in tandem what Grace calls on page 13 a “subterranean private investigation business,” their clients very often being various governmental agencies. Primrose himself does not make an official appearance in this book. He’s quarantined with the measles throughout its duration. Behind the scene, however, he’s actively behind the investigation into the murder that occurs in this case, making numerous suggestions and keeping Grace out of trouble, or trying to.

   Dead is a woman who may have been blackmailing a wealthy industrialist who may have his eye on the White House, the blackmailer therefore being in two ways the lady in the title of the book. One of the various people surrounding the would-be presidential candidate, all of whom were at the same cocktail party, is very likely to have been the killer. Most of them are known to Grace, if not close friends, which many of them are, which makes solving the murder all the more difficult for her.

   Leslie Ford’s prose is sometimes not easy to read, and sometimes the time and location of where her characters are at any one time seem to be taken too much for granted. The difficulty in reading is also due to a “fretful” way of talking that sometimes seems to bunch itself up too much, making it slow going at times to work one’s way through.

Woman in Black

   I think the following paragraph, the one quoted at some length below, may go a long way in illustrating this. Grace is with Sergeant Buck, who is trying to reassure her that Susan Kent (the woman being comforted in the quote up above) is not the killer. Grace, by the way, tells the story herself — all but a short Chapter One, which acts like a prologue, which I generally dislike, and once again, yes, I generally dislike it here as well. But to return to page 96, which I was leading up to, before that last digression:

    I said, “Thank you, Sergeant.” It didn’t seem to matter, really, that that wasn’t what was worrying me. I was grateful for what seemed to me a surprising mark of confidence from one who’d regarded me as a plain sieve, always to be viewed with the jaundiced and bilious eye of mistrust. But it had never seriously entered my mind that Susan had shot Betty Livingstone, puzzling as it was that she’d known her and actually had been at this house. It wouldn’t make sense, I wondered again, then, about her saying she didn’t know whether she was going to shoot Mr. Stubblefield [the wealthy industrialist] or not. I wished now I hadn’t been so abrupt and had been a little more patient, and found out what she thought she meant, what she had really trying to say when she said it. It seemed very involved and bewildering, and I doubted, with her violent resentment toward me, that I’d ever get a chance to have her clear it up.

   Don’t get me wrong, though. Leslie Ford seems to have had an excellent insight into people, why they react the way they do; and into marriages that work, and those that don’t. The mystery element — the whodunit part — is also done in a highly acceptable fashion, all wrapped up in a package that in the end is worth unwrapping. To be completely honest, though, for those willing to stop reading a book that seems unsatisfactory before finishing it, there may easily be doubts along the way.

— June 2005