“What can we do? All we’ve got is the knowledge in our minds and hearts that it was murder. But what else? There isn’t anything. It’s one of those perfect crimes.”
After a close brush with love and murder, Jean Holly is eager to retreat to a simpler life back in her hometown. What she finds is a community on the brink of war. It is November of 1941, and tiny Elm Hill, Illinois, is bracing itself for the country’s possible entry into World War II. Meanwhile, wealthy matriarch Claribel Fabian Lake is determined to seize control once and for all—not only of Elm Hill, but also of her three daughters.
Mrs. Lake’s sudden death is ascribed to natural causes. But Jean isn’t so sure, especially when rumors circulate that the dead woman was found clutching a golden box, a box which has now vanished. Even more disconcerting, her old flame, private investigator Pat Abbott, is in town. It’s hard to know what has Jean more flustered: the murder next door, or the handsome detective investigating it.
Reading The Golden Box is like attending a stranger’s family reunion. Everyone already knows everybody else, no one bothers to make introductions, and even when they do, there’s so much backstory that it only makes things more confusing. The relationships do sort themselves out eventually, however, resulting in a charming mystery with a convincing small-town flavor. The most interesting aspect of the book is its setting during the last weeks of American peacetime; not only does this provide a tense, unusual backdrop for the story, but the looming threat of war adds a sense of urgency this investigation would otherwise lack.
Jean has been summoned to Elm Hill to visit a sick aunt (though in fact no one seems very worried about the illness). The last time she was home, eight years ago, their neighbor Mrs. Lake was trying to marry off her daughter Emma to her awful cousin Ernest Fabian. As Jean’s cousin Peg relates, Emma rebelled, eloping with another man. Now her son needs expensive medical treatment, which Mrs. Lake refuses to pay for. Youngest daughter Val is sneaking around with a pilot from the wrong side of the tracks. The only obedient child is the glamorous Claire, who seems strangely resigned to being passed along to cousin Ernest in her turn.
At first it seems there is nothing noteworthy about the death of Mrs. Lake, except for how few people will miss her. “People who live in cities seldom realize that so much goes on every minute in a small town that even the death of its richest woman was to Elm Hill only a larger than usual incident,” Jean relates. When the terms of Mrs. Lake’s will leak out, however, the gossip begins. For one thing, cousin Ernest has been named executor of the three daughters’ inheritance…for a period of twenty years! There is also a sizable legacy for the local doctor. This is the same man who is rumored to have been Mrs. Lake’s lover, and the same one who declared her death a natural one.
Jean is disturbed by the entire situation, especially as the Lakes are her cousin’s next-door neighbors. Plagued by insomnia, she looks out at the sinister mansion at night.
I glanced out toward Fabian House. The moon was getting low, but was still doing all right. Clouds were sailing high across the sky and looked luminous. I suppose Fabian house with all its fussy trimmings might have been compared with some Victorian belle snoozing in her ruffles, but I wasn’t thinking about fancy stuff like that just then. What I thought was that it just seemed silly. A house ought to be able to show in some way that it had suffered a tragedy, and that one didn’t. I all at once detested the house, the way you do people who can’t feel.
Strange noises and movements echo in the darkness. Is it simply Ernest, an avid bird collector, pursuing owls through the night, or is the explanation even more sinister?
Jean sometimes wonders, but once again she is content to leave the sleuthing to Pat as she did in their previous adventure The Turquoise Shop. On the rare occasions she does try to join the investigation, she is either admonished by Pat or proves too squeamish for the job. “I’d hate to touch anything in here,” she tells Pat during the search of the Lake house. “If I were you I’d be one of those detectives that does everything by psychology.” Jean is giving a lot of thought to the harsh realities of detection at the moment. It’s not because she wishes to do more investigating herself, but because she is trying to decide whether settling down with Pat would be worth giving up either her own self-reliance or the kind of conventional married life her cousin has. “I mean, at the moment to be tied up with Patrick Abbott looks like going out of your way to acquire a lifelong affliction,” Jean correctly observes. “I’d be yanked from pillar to post, and along with it stood out in the cold every so often because he’d be solving another murder and I might just as well not exist.” She wonders what it says about Pat that he can be so ruthless on the trail of a suspect, especially when the victim is as cruel as Mrs. Lake.
Besides, a detective is kind of like a doctor, too. It’s his job to sleuth out crime. If the criminal turns out to be somebody whom society would justify for the act, he can’t help it. He feels just like a doctor, I suppose, when he sees somebody he loves condemned to die of an incurable disease. There is nothing the detective can do, beyond what his job allows for.
Jean spends a great deal of time trying to get inside Pat’s head, but the reader never gets to know Pat much at all. While the couple at least had some conversations in the previous book, here Pat remains inscrutable. It is never clear what is he really thinking, nor do we get to learn much about Jean herself outside of her relationship with Pat.
Just as American Indians have sympathetic roles in The Turquoise Shop, The Golden Box takes some time to explore the plight of Elm Hill’s African-American population. In contrast to other writers of the era, most of whom take such things in stride, Frances Crane seemingly viewed the use of racial slurs as such an obvious sign of bad character that it could serve as a legitimate clue to the mystery. Interestingly, Jean herself gives little thought to the black servants who become embroiled in the murder of Mrs. Lake, but Peg and her friends are deeply invested in the situation. Peg’s friend Nora is baffled by one black family’s acceptance of their mistreatment by the justice system.
I mean, those colored people are so sort of helpless. They aren’t, really, they’ve got the same rights as anyone else, but they haven’t what it takes to push ahead and get their rights. You and I would raise hell in a fix like that, and insist on a proper investigation. But [they] are resigned. They expect their reward some day in heaven, and they’re already resigned to waiting for it.
Though none of the white characters make a serious effort to think about why this might be the case, it is surprising to see the issue raised at all.
As the country moves closer and closer to war, Jean can’t help worrying that the Lake murder may be dropped altogether. “You know what’s happening in this town. They’re forgetting already. The war has put an end to any interest in it. I suppose murder on a mass scale rubs out little double murders like that. There never will be justice done.” Luckily, despite keeping a worried eye on the news, Pat is determined to solve the case. His solution is serviceable, including some evidence that is fairly revealed and some that is held back until the end. There is nothing really special about the culprit (I actually forgot who it was and had to go back and look it up again), but it gets the job done.
The real appeal of The Golden Box is Jean’s amusing and intelligent portrait of small-town life on the brink of war, as she relates the various murders and scandals in a drolly matter-of-fact fashion. Jean is at her most charming when she is away from Pat, cheerfully gossiping with her cousin and contemplating the town’s gallery of eccentrics; ironically, the fact that she and Pat spend so much time apart here actually helps the book. Her time in Elm Hill also serves another purpose for Jean. At a moment when she must decide what kind of future she really wants. Jean is given a glimpse of the life she might have lived if she had chosen a more conventional path, rather than leaving town and starting her own business—the kind of life she is supposed to want but could never have with the adventurous Pat. As far as Jean is concerned, the murder mystery is only a backdrop to the personal dilemma of an independent woman who must decide whether she is willing to give up some of her own freedom in order to be with the man she loves. Why she would want to do that, given what we see of Pat and Jean’s relationship, remains the biggest mystery of this series.
On the whole I really enjoyed this book as Crane’s narrative style is engaging and the central mystery is well thought out with plenty of clues and suspicious suspects. Moreover, I liked how Crane plays on our assumptions with these clues and the choice of killer was also satisfying. The main characters were well drawn and the investigation is interesting, although I think it would be nice if in later books Jean got more gumption and became a bigger member of the detecting duo. I think it also would have been nice if Crane had developed some of her African American characters more, as they only actively appear in the novel on a handful of occasions and I don’t feel we get a real sense of who they are as people, especially in comparison to the white American characters.
The opening chapter is a bit of mess, with characters being introduced willy-nilly without very much of an introduction, and the ending is cluttered and confused. In between, though, the hometown sleuthing is fun to watch and goes down smoothly — there are lots of suspects!
The Golden Box is available as an ebook from Open Road.
2 thoughts on “The Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane”
New author for me. The book seems interesting.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is a fun sleuthing-couple series (even if the female half of the couple is a little more passive than I would like). For me, the big appeal is that most of the books take place in different locations during a period that spans World War II and the years after, which provides an interesting portrait of changing society and wartime conditions.