“But everybody adored Miranda.” I repeated mechanically an article of faith I was beginning to question.
“Everybody admired her,” he corrected me. “Miranda was the woman on the pedestal. The trouble with pedestals is you’ve got to stay there. You can’t relax.”
Jane and Dagobert Brown are enjoying their American road trip, until Dagobert suggests looking up his old flame Miranda Ross, as they just happen to be in New Mexico. Jane is less than enthused. At first it appears that Miranda doesn’t want to see them, either, until she unexpectedly changes her mind and invites them to visit her ranch.
It quickly becomes obvious that relations are strained at the Palo Alto Ranch. And why is it taking so long for their hostess to appear? “She said you’d be interested in Palo Alto because—well, because she says there’s going to be a murder.” Miranda’s prediction comes true, in ways no one could have expected.
Murder Begins at Home is a droll comedic mystery, with the Browns facing off against a group of eccentric suspects. There is a greater emphasis on detection than in Corpse Diplomatique, but no one would mistake it for a fair-play mystery, especially since part of the solution involves understanding a specific aspect of daily life in the 1940s. There is a twist I haven’t come across before, and some truly brutal moments. In between these few solemn passages, Jane and Dagobert keep the laughs coming. For the reader who appreciates their dry sense of humor, Murder Begins at Home is a major treat.
Jane and Dagobert learn that the wealthy Miranda is generous to a fault, “too good to live,” but her gifts often come with strings attached. Her alcoholic father and tomboy sister Peggy sometimes resent her interference in their lives. Husband Julian hates going to his wife for handouts.
All the descriptive adjectives which come to mind in discussing Julian Ross are words like medium, neutral, average. He was not exactly a nonentity; he was, as it were, too much of a nonentity to be a genuine nonentity. You had the impression of a real person, from whom the essential character had been sucked out.
Miranda is especially encouraging to men, whose significant others don’t always appreciate her efforts. At the moment, she’s trying to get Peggy’s boyfriend Bill, a nuclear scientist, to quit his public-service job at a government lab and start his own company. (Seventy years on, his atomic-bomb work seems less than altruistic.) Miranda is also fostering the career of popular composer Dwight Karnak. His wife Sue worries that Miranda is leading Dwight astray both personally and professionally.
Outside of the ranch, Jane is delighted by Larry, a real, live cowboy who has suddenly turned up with an expensive new convertible. “Either he was the typical cowboy, or else he and I had been to the same films.” Meanwhile, Dagobert feels that Larry’s seductive wife Yolanda has a great deal to offer the investigation (strangely enough, Jane disagrees).
All of these people must be investigated, which leads to a great deal of skulking around on dark patios and, in Jane’s opinion, far too much wandering for Dagobert.
I don’t know why I always feel nervous and apprehensive when Dagobert goes off on his own. I suppose I have a melodramatic turn of imagination or perhaps I’m the clinging type. Actually nothing very tragic ever happens on these occasions. Sometimes he comes back with a manuscript of an unknown Florentine poet which was such a bargain—say, the exact amount we have in our current bank account—that it would have been madness not to buy it. Once he “picked up” a Tudor four-poster which was too large for our bedroom and meant moving to a new flat. At worst he returns with a political refugee, generally one who speaks only Rumanian or Hungarian, whom we feed for a while and put up on the sofa in the study. But he almost never comes home insensible or physically battered.
But this is in London, not Alamogordo. Nor at home is his normal errand to look for a murderer.
Interestingly, there is much less emphasis here on Jane’s career as a mystery author. Everyone jokes about being included in one of her books, but unlike in Corpse Diplomatique, she shows no inclination to write about the goings-on at the ranch. It is frustrating that neither Dagobert, folksy deputy Pa Fergusson, nor anyone else seems to take her ideas seriously, however.
When I was very young, people used to cultivate me for my own sake. But I am no longer young. I shall be twenty-nine again on my next birthday. Then exciting young men would ring me up and make exciting proposals. Now people tell me about foot and mouth disease.
Comic mysteries are always a tricky proposition, because both the mystery and the comedy must come off for the book to succeed. The mystery here is good enough to pass muster and the comedy really shines. Murder Begins at Home is sometimes baffling, but hilarious at every moment.
These books are humorous and not quite realistic but in the midst of all the shenanigans there is a serious mystery. I have to admit it, this book is not nearly as much fun as She Shall Have Murder, the first book in the series. I don’t know if it is the setting (London law office vs. New Mexico ranch), or the characters. But still, I enjoyed the story.
I find the books harmless and entertaining, with a couple of reservations. I have to keep reminding myself that Jane and Dagobert are English – they give not the slightest impression of being anything but solid Americans in the way they talk, act and dress. On the whole the female narration is well-done, but I found some of Jane’s pronouncements on how to keep a man a bit much (even allowing for the date) and very much male-oriented.
Murder Begins at Home is out of print, though new copies of the Rue Morgue reprint are still kicking around.