The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (1941) by Margaret Armstrong

Margaret Armstrong - Blue Santo Murder Mystery cover 01

3-stars.jpg(3/10 stars)

Love. Money. Revenge Three good reasons for killing. But revenge is the best.

Tecos, New Mexico, is a beautiful place with a bloody past. Decades ago, the governor was killed by a group of Pueblo Indians whose land he stole. Six men were hanged for the crime, at least one of whom was known to be innocent.

Now the murder house is a tourist attraction. For only a dime, visitors can enjoy shuddering at the bloodstains on the floor, before moving on to more cheerful thoughts. But heiress Louisa Kearny-Pine remains disturbed by this proximity to violent death. She doesn’t yet realize that murder is even closer than she thinks.

The structure of the book is unusual, first introducing one short-lived cast of characters in Long Island, only to then reveal the shocking news that Mrs. Kearny-Pine has disappeared in Tecos. The next chapter flashes back to the previous day, so we can follow Louisa through the hours leading up to her disappearance.

Louisa Kearny-Pine is a rich woman with high moral standards; as a result, her relationships are in a shambles. Her husband Stephen wants to marry another woman. Cousin Rosalie is a poor relation whose duties leave her no time for romance. Louisa’s artistic nephew Algernon is on the verge of being disowned thanks to his acquaintance with a certain young lady. Nurse Janet Gryce has a big secret in her past. And what about the local Pueblo Indians like James Rio, whose great-grandfather was unjustly hanged by General Kearny? Mrs. Kearny-Pine is no relation to the general, but a stranger would have no way of knowing that.

The family attorney sends socially-connected private investigator Hubert Pierce to search for Louisa. (Strangely, the police show no interest in the disappearance of the world’s richest woman. A hick sheriff does eventually appear so he can say things like, “Alibis is scarier than hen’s teeth at this hotel.”) Pierce is really a terrible detective. He eliminates suspects because they are “nice girls” or went to college with his brother. Although he’s sure Janet Gryce is innocent, he threatens to frame her if one of his high-society pals comes under suspicion. And the less said about the solution the better.

So characters and plot leave something to be desired, but the book does have some unique qualities. When a dead body is discovered, the scene is gruesome. Just when you think Golden Age mysteries are too bloodless, someone hits you with a graphic description of a corpse that is both stomach-turning and terribly sad.

Blue Santo is also unexpectedly progressive for the time in its treatment of Native American characters (emphasis on “for the time”). While absent from most of the story, it is clear that the Pueblo characters have their own lives and concerns; the problems of white tourists are simply not very interesting to them. Janet visits the pueblo twice after helping an injured child. Each time, she is uncomfortably aware that they view her as an outsider come to gawk at their quaint ways—which is exactly what she is. And far from scapegoating an American Indian for the crime, the sheriff is uncomfortable with the possibility that someone from the pueblo might be guilty. They are a powerful demographic in Tecos, and James Rio is universally respected. The sheriff and district attorney worry that their projects will stall without the support of the Pueblo. James Rio and the waitress Bella are very positive characters, if a bit one-note, but nobody is especially deep here.

Margaret Armstrong - Blue Santo Murder Mystery cover 02

The blue santo of the title refers to the Blue Santo Hotel where most of our victims and suspects are staying. Early scenes at the hotel are hilarious, as it has recently opened and the proprietress is eager to set the correct tone. Part of that tone comes from the unusual blue figurine of a saint, which Mrs. Kearny-Pine covets instantly. The statue cannot be sold for six months, and we watch as Mrs. Kearny-Pine squanders what might turn out to be her final hours on a very telling quest. Upon seeing something beautiful and special, she is not content to simply enjoy it for itself. She must own it—and not six months from now, but today. She refuses to believe that a blue santo cannot be had for any amount.

Mrs. Kearny-Pine is used to being able to buy anything she wants. Over the course of the day, however, she finds that what she really wants cannot be bought for any price. She bought a husband, but could not buy his love and fidelity. She bought a companion, but could not buy friendship. She gave to charity, but could not buy a kind heart. She has wasted the precious hours of her life chasing something that, in the end, was never real at all.

Second Opinion:

Kirkus Reviews, October 14, 1941:

Everyone seems to have a motive — nobody has an alibi — plenty of red herrings and skeletons rattling in closets… Not up to its predecessors; dialogue artificial; too much leniency taken for granted down the line.


In print from Lost Crime Classics. There used to be an ebook as well, but that no longer seems to be available. The company’s website is also down, so this print edition may not be available forever.

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