EVELYN PAYNE – Held Open for Death

Arcadia House; hardcover; c. 1958.

   The author’s only mystery, nor is it one that’s particularly easy to find. There are two copies online that are both in the $30 range, and one other in Norway for $80 or so. I paid less than either asking price for mine, and – as long as you’re asking me my opinion – neither should you.

Evelyn Payne: Held Open for Death

   It starts out promising enough, with a heroine sleuth with an unusual occupation for, um, a heroine sleuth: that of real estate agent. There certainly must have been others, before and since, but at the moment, none seem come to mind.    [FOOTNOTE.]

   Tillie Latimer is her name, the locale is El Paso, and truth be told, when the book begins, Tillie’s been a real estate agent for only a couple of weeks. Her first big assignment on her own: holding an open house for the home next door to her mother’s, where Tillie still lives.

   It proves to be a big success, so big that keeping track of incoming visitors proves impossible. This turns out to be a big problem when Granpa Tellfair, aged 89, and father of Miss Sadie, who owns the house, is later found dead in the basement, stabbed to death with a knife still in his back. Strangely enough, he also still has $1000 in his pocket. This is doubly strange. Since time he was once robbed, he never carried more than five dollars with him at a time.

   Tillie had met Granpa during the open house, and as it so happens, while he managed to maintain his well-deserved status as a curmudgeon in his short conversation with her, he was also one of the more likable people who happened to stop by. The question is, who’d kill an old man like this, and why?

   Going hand-in-hand with the mystery, there is also a strong romantic interest for Tillie in the person of Miss Sadie’s son Rick, the “town’s star juvenile delinquent for a few years,” now out of the Army and perhaps on his way to becoming a solid citizen. Nor is Rick the only one who is showing an interest in Tillie. Trying to place the book into its proper category, I am not sure whether the two or three more murders that occur qualify this detective yarn as a cozy or not, but if Agatha Christie’s books are cozies, then so is this one. And after thinking about it some more, I shall happily concede that it is, no matter what.

   I mentioned Agatha Christie. That was a rather unfortunate reference, now that I think about it. While the author is obviously very familiar with the ins and outs of the real estate business, she’s also in over her head in making sure that the story keeps on going in the direction she wants it to. The characters are fun at first, but their lack of depth soon begins to tell. Soon after the halfway point, the many loose strands of the plot get tangled, cluttered and confused, and seemingly beyond repair. In wrapping things up, the author makes it clear she had a goal worthy of the telling in mind. It is the getting there that is the problem.

   Everything that a good mystery should have is in this book. It’s just that the ingredients have been assembled – well, not badly, exactly, and I have not come up with a more positive way of saying this – but by an amateur, in a truest sense of the word. Without a stronger pro at the helm, to come to the point a little more quickly, this is little more than a “nice try” and/or a “might have been.”

— October 2006

[FOOTNOTE.] This is the review that was my springboard into creating a list of all the real estate agents who ever happened to become detectives as part of their occupational duties. Check it out here, a post made back in January of this year.