Forgotten Books: The Birthday Murder by Lange Lewis
Jane Lewis Brandt (Lange Lewis) was a Los Angeles writer who wrote
mysteries set in that most envied and reviled of cities. Which is to
say that she came by her take on the city first-hand and you can feel
this familiarity in the people she gathers as suspects in her
Barzun and Taylor include Birthday in their famous list of mystery
musts and with good reason. The style, so crisp and literate, is as
good in its way as anything by that other Los Angeles writer Raymond
Style. Though, unlike Chandler, she eschews the flashy. There are
literally hundreds of gem-like sentences in this novel. Man could she
Just as gem-like are the characters we meet as the mystery is
unraveled. Victoria Jason is in practice if not in declaration a true
feminist in the mid-1940s. She supports herself by writing novels which
her husband Albert, a producer of Grade B movies, admires. In fact as
the book opens we see that Victoria and Albert are planning on bringing
her recent novel to the screen. It will be Albert's first A picture.
Or would have been if somebody hadn't killed him with ant poison..
There is an unfortunate connection between his murder and the novel he
was about to film. The novel dealt with a man murdered by his wife with
The suspects include Victoria's rather ruthless best friend, her (for
me) too swaggering ex-husband, the longtime maid she realizes suddenly
she knows very little about and a former friend of Albert's who became
Lewis gives each of them a fascinating backstory. For instance the
ex-husband was born rich but because it was the Thirties and so many
people were starving he betrayed his own class by going out on his own,
penniless, to make his way in the world. Honorable to a point but
Lewis slyly undermines his good intentions by showing how silly he
becomes sometimes in trying to deny the way he was taught to look at
the world. She is not a forgiving writer, Lewis. She even shows us
Victoria in a few unflattering moments. Victoria is not a heroine.
The detective here is Richard Tuck. He appears in Lewis' other novels.
She makes him too big for my taste and not only in his size--which is
six five--but in his oddness. Where the rest of the novel is ostensibly
realistic Tuck belongs in the kind of mystery wherein The Great Oddball
is at the center of things. Sherlock Holmes, say, or Nero Wolfe. I'm
big fans of both but I don't think the trope works here. It's
impossible, for instance, to imagine him getting along with the other
detectives in his homicide squad.
This is a classic whodunit but better written than 95% of whodunits
I've read in fifty years or so. I've rarely seen our language used so
nimbly. The plot is perfect but what really kept me reading at night
were those sentences. Do yourself a favor and find this book somewhere.