ELIZABETH DALY – The Book of the Lion.

Bantam paperback, 1st printing, 1985. Hardcover edition: Rinehart & Co., 1948. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, September 1948. Earlier paperback editions: Bestseller Mystery #112, circa 1949; Berkley F700, circa 1963.

   For a lady who didn’t start writing mysteries until she was in her early 60s, Elizabeth Daly was one of the more prolific author in the 1940s, publishing sixteen adventures of Henry Gamadge, the leading character in each of her books, during the twelve year period beginning in 1940 and ending in 1951.

ELIZABETH DALY The Book of the Lion.

   It’s doubtful, though, if any but the most dedicated of mystery readers know of her work today. For the volume of work she did, Elizabeth Daly seems to be under-appreciated and all but forgotten. According to Amazon, only one of her books is currently in print: Unexpected Night (Otto Penzler’s Classic American Mystery Library, 1994).

   And I’ll confess that in spite of many opportunities to do so, this is the first of her novels that I’ve read, and I can’t tell you why. In case, you’ll have to take the comments that follow as being based on a sample of size one, no more (and no less).

   What Gamadge does (or did) for a living, precisely, based on this wispy, lightweight bit of mystery, escaped me for a while. He is called upon to look at a collection of letters that might have some value, even though he gently protests that he is not really qualified. He is later described as a graphologist – a handwriting expert – not to mention a noted criminologist (page 41). What he really seems to be, and he has a laboratory to back up this up, is an expert in old and rare books.

   All of which lends a strong literary flavor to the case that follows. The widow of a famed poet and playwright, but not in any financial sense, has the husband’s letters, but before Gamadge can view them, she has them sold and bundled out of her brother-in-law’s house, sight unseen.

   The end of the matter, perhaps, but Gamadge senses there was more to the sale than met the eye. He is proven right, although not in any way the police can follow up on, when the last person the dead man visited before his unsolved death also is found dead, an apparent suicide, and it takes Gamadge’s mild-mannered investigations to bring some closure and finality to the matter.

ELIZABETH DALY The Book of the Lion.

   Gamadge is the epitome of the genteel, bookish detective, the pure amateur, and he is very clever in the way he figures things out and puts the pieces of the puzzle together – and I still haven’t figured out how he knew what and when nor how.

   “The Book of the Lion,” by the way, would be a fabulous find, if it were ever found – especially in manuscript form as one of the lost books of Chaucer – and that is what piques Gamadge’s interest more than anything else, even if the chances are nearly one hundred percent that it’s a forgery.

   Even if the plot is flimsy and gossamer thin, Daly’s characters are perfectly described, even those the most minor, and she has a sense of humor that can often catch you unaware. Gamadge’s wife Clara, who does not appear often enough in this novel, is a charming young woman who seems to adore Henry.

   I particularly liked the following exchange, from page 112. Clara and Henry are talking about the beautifully naive young cousin of the widow who had the letters:

    “And she loves to ride in taxis,” said Gamadge, “and I wish her taste in sandwiches were better. Still, they’re cheap.”

    Clara said calmly, “Henry loves her because she’s a victim and doesn’t resent it.”

    “Doesn’t know it,” Gamadge corrected her. “There’s nothing more beautiful than a martyr who isn’t aware of the fact.” He picked up Clara’s hand and held it against his cheek. As he laid it down again, she said: “I can’t imagine what you mean.”

    “That’s what I mean.” Gamadge was laughing too.

— January 2004

[UPDATE] 07-16-08.
  Four and a half years later, and there aren’t any of Elizabeth Daly’s books in print. I’m guessing, but I imagine both she and Henry Gamadge are even less well-known now than they were then. Tastes change, I know, but it’s still a shame.

   And in the “credit where credit is due” department: The cover of the Bestseller edition came from www.bookscans.com, a website with a most worthy goal: to display the covers of every vintage paperback ever published in the US through 1970 or so. I sent Bruce Black, the proprietor, a few he’s missing earlier this week, and if you’re a collector, you might consider doing the same.

[UPDATE] 07-23-08.   Good news! I was in error when I said Daly is no longer in print. See the comment left today by Les Blatt.