“Much as one loves one’s neighbor it is undeniably more pleasant to have him arrested for murder than to be so arrested one’s self.”
Lane Herbert has made the most hideous mistake. Acting on what she thought were instructions from her father, she has handed over $50,000 in securities to a man impersonating a stockbroker. Now the family is ruined, and it’s all her fault.
The college student sees only one way out of her dilemma. Dr. Jeffrey McNeill and his wife Anne are famous on campus for their crime-solving. Maybe they can get the stolen goods back discreetly. As the McNeills probe the case, however, they learn that the eccentric Herbert family has very good reasons for not wanting the police involved. But when a bullet-riddled corpse lands in their backyard, they no longer have a choice in the matter.
It’s Raining Violence is an amusingly frantic sleuthing-couple mystery that results in a nicely complicated solution. The screwball humor of the Herbert family doesn’t always work, but Anne’s dry observations keep things on an even keel. Jeffrey does not make much of an impression here—Anne is the one with all the brilliant ideas.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Theodora Du Bois, so I don’t really know anything about her series characters Anne and Jeffrey McNeill. Based on the information revealed here, however, they must lead astonishing lives. At one point, their young son refers to a time “before the house blew up.” Anne is shot during the course of the story, an event she is remarkably casual about (it seems to be a regular occurrence). Her biggest worry is whether her best suit has been damaged by the bullet.
Clothing is a major preoccupation for Anne; before heading to New York City to interview a suspect, she must change out of her tweeds. “It’s a question of self-respect…My mink coat is too short as it is, and I’d look an absolute fool with the tweed skirt dangling below it like a great wool petticoat.” Indeed, fashion plays an important role in unraveling the mystery. A woman’s shoe is a vital clue. Anne knows the description of a female suspect is fabricated because no woman would wear the bizarre array of clothing described. When Lane goes on the lam bare-legged, the fact that she is wearing “shoes, but no socks or stockings” is considered noteworthy enough to highlight in the APB. Unfortunately for the police, Lane, foreseeing exactly this, has gone to the trouble of contriving makeshift socks out of mittens. (It seems strange that people would find a total lack of hosiery to be more notable than a person wearing mittens on her feet, but there you are.)
If the madcap clan in You Can’t Take It With You were all up to their necks in crime, you would have the Herberts. A lot will depend on how funny you find Lane, her grandparents, and her four uncles, each of whom has a specific verbal tic—Lane speaks in art metaphors, her uncle Monroe has a stutter, Flagg is constantly quoting poetry. Sometimes the joke lands, but there are an awful lot of Herberts, none of whom can stop talking for a second. As police photograph the dead body in the living room, the family entertain themselves by acting out the 1632 tragedy The Fair Penitent. When Anne requests a tour of their mansion, Flagg’s response is, “I’ll be guide, I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury, said cunning old fury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death. Dear me, Mrs. McNeill, that didn’t turn out very well, did it? Almost too apt. Come along.” This is how most conversations with a Herbert go.
At the same time, there is a sadness to watching the decay of a once-great family. The Herberts’ glory dates back to the reign of Charles I and, while the family has been poor for young Lane’s entire life, her father and four surviving uncles remember growing up rich, with dazzling futures stretching out before them. It hasn’t worked out that way. The family fortune is gone, and so is their beloved brother Courtney. Their parents cling to a way of life that is now extinct. Each of the “boys” has a talent they would like to follow—baking, babysitting, radio voiceovers—but their parents deem these careers too lowly for a Herbert.
“Oh, yes, we have a good time,” he agreed. “That’s the curse of the Herbert family. We have such a good time here in the house that we never have to make any effort outside. If we fail at anything outside, instead of picking ourselves up and taking another shot at it”—Anne thought he paused almost imperceptibly, as if the thought of taking another shot at something had flashed a frightening picture in his mind. He went on, perhaps more hurriedly—”instead of forcing ourselves to force ourselves to try to overcome the failure we creep home with our wounds.”
The four boys know they are ridiculous, they know they are wasting their lives, but it’s hard to leave the cocoon of their mansion and plunge into a harsher world. Only Lane’s father has had the courage to go out and pursue his passion, which happens to be crabs. Though his family is mortified by the crab factory, none of them would mind getting their hands on the $50,000 it’s earned him.
The oddly old-fashioned atmosphere that surrounds the Herbert family even extends to their friends, such as their broker.
Mr. Javits was small and wispy and would have looked more appropriately dressed in brocades taking a pinch of snuff. In fact, it was rumored that he did take snuff, and it was well known that his hobby was the embroidering of tapestry seats for his Hepplewhite dining-room chairs. Four out of eight beautiful rose creations were already finished. He was a most loyal friend and a person of keen business acumen, but he should really have been born in the reign of Queen Anne. There are people who belong in other centuries.
Du Bois has a deft hand with characters and descriptions, and she manages to pull together an amazingly disparate group of clues into a coherent solution. Even if the self-consciously wacky antics of the Herbert family are not always to my taste, It’s Raining Violence is a fast-paced, entertaining read.
Kirkus, November 3, 1949
It’s Raining Violence is out of print with very few used copies available. It was also published as a Detective Book Club volume with One of Those Things by Peter Cheyney and Do Not Murder Before Christmas by Jack Iams.