BARBARA D’AMATO – The Hands of Healing Murder. Dr. Garrett DeGraaf #1. Charter, paperback original, 1980.

   It has to be quite a challenge for a mystery writer to write a locked room mystery, and to write one as your very first one, that must be a double challenge indeed. (I base this statement from observation only, not on experience!) After writing this first adventure of Dr. Garrett DeGraaf in crime-solving, author Barbara D’Amato wrote but one other, that being The Eyes on Utopia Murder (Charter, 1981).

   She then disappeared from the scene for while, with no other mysteries until Hardball came out from Scribner in 1990, the first of her reporter Cat Marsala series, and one for which I am sure she is far better known.

   I have not read the second DeGraaf book — I bought this when it was new, and it has taken me this long to read the first one! — but I do not believe that it was also a locked room mystery. Dead in Hands is a doctor in his own library, killed by a scalpel in his neck while eight guests, two foursomes, were playing duplicate bridge in the other side of the room. The chair in which he was sitting was partially obstructed from view by a bookcase, so the murder was not seen — but it does not seem possible that the murderer was not. No one else entered the room (fact) but the fingerprints on the murder weapon match no one who was in the room.

   There are no secret panels or places for anyone else to hide. It’s quite a puzzle, indeed. The dead man was a perfectionist and largely disliked by all, so there is no shortage of suspects. This is as pure a detective puzzle that I’ve read in some time that wasn’t written in the 1920s or 30s.

   A couple of things stand out. First, the observation that in real life, killers in general do not want to create locked room mysteries. If one occurs, two questions have to be asked: why as well as how?

   The second thing that caught my attention is how familiar the author had to be with both (a) hospital procedures and (b) the classification of fingerprints. In terms of being described well, both are top notch. The solution is a bit far-fetched, but otherwise extremely well prepared for. A bit awkward is the narration told by the police officer in the case, marred by his having to fill in the details that DeGraaf tells him about later, after the latter has gone off on his own.

   There is also a major theme to the story, one consisting of the question of how society should best make use of limited medical resources — how long should patients be kept alive who likely to die anyway — one that you can hardly expect to be solved in the pages of a mystery novel, nor of course is it. Overall I have a feeling that the story will be a little dry for most readers, but personally, I enjoyed this one. For a first novel, quite ably done.