You couldn’t go up to the door, ring the bell and ask, “Did you put poison in Mr. Tolliver’s coffee? And did you, by any chance, bash him over the head?”
When Ann Bartley left her hometown in Alabama five years ago, she swore she’d never return. How could she, after her fiance jilted her to elope with one of her in-laws? She’d see Hugh and his new wife at every family event. Even after the doctor orders her south to recover from pneumonia, she resists.
Then she receives a panicked letter from her sister Jean: “I need you, I need you desperately now. I’m so afraid…” Is Jean losing her mind, or is her husband’s family trying to drive her crazy? Ann would do anything to defend her sister—even after Jean’s enemies start turning up dead.
The Crimson Feather is a run-of-the-mill murder mystery that revolves around the dysfunctional Tolliver family. Helen Tolliver is the forbidding matriarch of the family; she’s taken against Jean since learning that she was an adopted child who might be tainting the Tolliver gene pool. Her colorless husband William goes along with Helen’s every whim. Their son Bill does almost nothing to stand up for his wife Jean. Worst of all, from Ann’s perspective, is daughter Lou, who happens to have married Ann’s ex-fiance Hugh. Shy Aunt Amelia rounds out the family circle.
The Tollivers keep their family close and their enemies closer, which is lucky since the two so often coincide. One day, Ann joins them on a hunting trip, only to find William Tolliver dead in the woods. The local sheriff suspects murder—there is a bloody feather on the body, but William had not shot any birds that day. Cause of death could be a blow to the head, or he might have fallen and hit his head due to poison. Any member of the family could be guilty.
The setup here is genuinely suspenseful. Ann receives her sister’s desperate plea for help only to find a seemingly normal household. Gradually, she realizes that something is very wrong in the family. Unfortunately, the story starts to peter out at this point. Jean’s possible insanity, the murder mystery, and even the tepid love triangle that develops between Ann, Hugh, and her new love interest Paul, all unfold in the most predictable manner.
Part of the problem is Ann herself, who is not as cute as she thinks she is. Her loyalty to her sister is admirable (especially regarding the issue of adoption, which is treated here in a more enlightened way than one might expect for the era). However, Ann is also hot-tempered and thinks highly of her own attractiveness, often judging other women’s appearances harshly. She’s also not the most efficient amateur sleuth:
It was not easy to be a detective, as Ann soon learned […] After dinner she retired to her own room, settling comfortably in bed with fat pillows behind her and a pad of drawing paper on her knees. Her plan was to assemble the facts she knew and those she suspected, but Jean, thinking she was ill, kept interrupting with offers of a hot-water bottle or hot lemonade.
Rather than observe Ann’s endless drama, I would have preferred to follow the unassuming Sheriff Davies in his investigation.
The book also features several African-American servants who prattle away in “comedic” dialect for pages on end. There is one moment when Ann suspects that two servants have buried in their chatter a subtle message that their race and dependent position do not allow them to communicate to her directly. She never follows through, however, a missed opportunity to provide a little depth to some otherwise stereotypical characters.
That’s not surprising, since The Crimson Feather is so profoundly average in every way. It’s not bad, it just misses every chance to be better.
Unfortunately I would not say [mystery] is a strong feature of Mason’s writing, though The Crimson Feather is the best in this regard, giving us three questions to puzzle over: Was the first death murder or accidental?, Who is trying to make Jean look insane? and Who is responsible for the second death? The reader is also provided with lists of opportunity and a timetable of movements […] The level of peril is also much more palpable in The Crimson Feather, the insanity aspect adding a lot to the plot. The character set is also stronger overall in this 3rd novel, providing greater reader engagement.
The Crimson Feather is available as a two-in-one volume along with Murder Rents a Room from Coachwhip Publications.