HELEN REILLY – The Silver Leopard

Detective Book Club; hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition, July 1947. Hardcover first edition: Random House, 1946. First magazine appearance: Mystery Book Magazine, January 1947. Paperback reprint: Dell 287, mapback, 1949.

HELEN REILLY The Silver Leopard

   This is a post-war society mystery novel — a different life than most of ours (I would imagine), but real people are involved. In her books, Reilly’s main detective is Inspector McKee, head of the Manhattan Homicide; of the 35 to 40 mysteries she wrote, he appeared in all but two or three. New York City was her most favored locale, though excursions to suburban Connecticut were common, as so it happens in this novel.

   I’ve not read many of her books, but in the ones I have, McKee — while eventually on the scene — is not the primary protagonist. He seems to have been content to stay in observer status: looking in on the affair from without, balancing the facts he knows with the people he sees.

   In this book, to take a handy example, we follow the actions of Catherine Lister, whose uncle had died several years ago, but whose life is still very much centered about her aunt and her two cousins (not her aunt’s children). There was recently a broken romance in Catherine’s life (due primarily to Harriet, called Hat, one of the two cousins) but now there is a new fiancé (Nicky, who has just been invalided out of the war).

   But when Catherine’s aunt announces her own plans to re-marry, events begin to snowball — and somehow the silver leopard that Catherine’s uncle had sent her just before his untimely death is intricately involved.

HELEN REILLY The Silver Leopard

   I don’t quite understand the last attack on Catherine’s life — I don’t think it’s quite enough to say that the killer was perhaps slightly crazed — but otherwise this tangled web of mystery and romance was a lot of fun to read, in observer status, in much the same way that McKee does.

— August 2000 [slightly revised]

[UPDATE] 02-26-08. For a lot more on Helen Reilly’s career, see Michael Grost’s long article about her on the main Mystery*File website, followed by a complete bibliography and lots of additional covers.

   It was interesting to note that while I assume the book was popular when it first appeared, it has not been reprinted since 1949. As I said in a followup comment to the preceding review of Last Seen Hitchhiking by Brett Halliday, some books (and authors) are very much a product of their own time and era, and I’m sure that The Silver Leopard is one of them.

   In my opening sentence, I referred to this as a “post-war society” mystery novel. I think you can often learn more history from mystery fiction — at least very small slices of it — than you can anywhere else. And that includes high school and grade school textbooks, from which — other than their parents — most people learn about the world that came before them.