“You’re investigating my wife’s death, not her life.”
But that’s exactly what lieutenant Eggart is investigating. Two Names for Death, (1945), is deceptive and intriguing, and therefore a satisfying murder mystery read. Initially the set up appears straightforward; a dead woman in her hotel bedroom, a suicide that isn’t, a mysterious stranger on the run – the man she was seen breakfasting with the previous morning. Even when the detective walks into the plot it all seems a bit familiar, by the book, realistic but ordinary. So far so unchallenging, except for a couple of things; strange details that niggle away at you, bizarre little coincidences that leave you wanting to understand what is going on under the surface. Don’t coincidences always grate in a mystery until you find out how they fit? The whole thing starts to gain momentum, it’s not long before things become more complex. Fenwick is a skilful plotter; enter a whole bundle of well drawn credible suspects as the back story unfolds. And then there’s Barney, student taxi driver, keen observer of people and inside source for homicide detective lieutenant Eggart. In fact Barney is more than that, in a number of ways he’s a pivot for the story, a confidant, an honest broker (no irony intended), a catalyst for plot developments. But first someone has to die:
It’s a sticky Sunday morning in Boston and Barney, taxi driver, is waiting outside the Hotel Clyde in the hopes of a fare to St. Michael’s church for eleven o’clock mass. As the church bell chime he realises that ship has sailed, he’s about to pull off when two people come out of the hotel entrance, both looking cool but talking heatedly. Eventually the man calls Barney over, the taxi driver catches snippets of their conversation, her name is Lenore. The man doesn’t seem very happy, he sees Lenore into the taxi and walks away:
“You wanted to do this your way—now go ahead.”
She asks for 419 Waterford Street, Brookline, Barney knows exactly where that is. As he drops Lenore she asks him to come back for her at 6pm. When he returns he lets himself in, bumping into her in the hall. She recognised him but can’t recall from where, (a subtle hint that she is disconcerted, troubled?). Barney sees:
“She was not more than forty-two or three, but the mask-like face made her seem timeless even sinister, like a witch in a stolen body of a young girl. Her dark red hair, worn in long, smooth waves and curls, shone in the hall light with wig-like perfection. And yet there was nothing sinister about her, outside of her appearance. Her manner was eager, strained, a little pathetic.”
Lenore isn’t ready to leave yet. Turns out this is the Shaffts residence and Barney lives here, he has a room upstairs, his boss Mr Bottman also has a room here. He wonders how Lenore knows the Shaffts, the old lady, her son and granddaughter, but they don’t get to discuss it. He cleans up while he waits for Lenore to get ready. As a storm breaks her drops her back at to the Clyde via a brief errand at another hotel.
Next day the body of Lenore Bellane is discovered at the Hotel Clyde, her wrists slit, it’s a while before the ME confirms it’s not suicide, it’s murder. When Barney sees it in the papers he tells his boss, Mr Bottman at the taxi depot, they agree they should go to the police and tell them that Barney saw the man they are hunting. Only Bottman says he has to go see the Shaffts family first. He knew Lenore, she was Edith’s mother, the Shaffts granddaughter is her daughter. Lenore Bellane travelling from New York is actually Mrs Lenore Bellane Shaffts of Boston.
Fenwick is superb at nailing characters with her sharp sketches, hints about everything from sexuality to mood; jealousy, anger, anxiety and troubles. Some of the writing here is very good, she knows how to tease and provoke the reader, as in this little aside which muses on hotel management before actually mentioning the ‘problem’ is a dead woman in one of the rooms;
“The average guest has no quarrel with this discreet policy, and is accustomed to regard any hotel management as a combination of whipping boy and supreme authority, depending on his mood of the moment. Whatever happens, it is in the management’s problem, and the management is expected to deal with it.”
Two Names for Death is tight, character motivations are strong, encounters between the detective and the suspects have a frisson and there’s plenty of twists, an enjoyable read.
Elizabeth Fenwick, (Elizabeth Jane Phillips, 1916-1996), was the author of fourteen mysteries, three mainstream novels and one children’s book. Initially writing poetry, she went to secretarial school and worked as a translator becoming a writer.
Paul Burke 4* personal, would not recommend as a group read
Two Names for Death by E.P. Fenwick
9781951474013 Stark House Press Black Gat Paperback April 2020