Saturday, May 19, 2007

Death of a Doll - Hilda Lawrence

First published 1947; cover shown is the 2001 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition from the Pan Classic Crime series. 324 pages.

Described as one of the 'great lost treasures' of crime writing, this is Lawrence at her best. With a setting that would be filled with possibilities for a writer (a shelter for young working women) and a death that looks far from suspicious at first, this novel promises much - and delivers most of it.

Ruth Miller arrives at Hope House with dreams of a brighter future, with good meals and unlimited hot water now at her disposal. But within minutes of stepping inside the shelter she appears terrified. A few days later she is found with her neck broken after apparently jumping from the seventh floor.

Ruth had no family or friends, but someone did care - a young society woman, who asks her friend, P.I. Mark East, to look into the death which she considers suspicious. Two elderly women and friends of East's, Beulah and Bessie, provide some comic relief while uncovering more than a few vital clues all on their own.

The majority of the story takes place in the claustrophobic confines of Hope House, with its all-female residents and staff (when Mark visits the shelter, calls of "Man Coming! Man Coming!" are made as he walks through the corridors). Ruth's death took place during a fancy dress party, when all the girls were dressed alike - as rag dolls, with ever-smiling faces and white, floppy bodies. It is the fact that everyone looked alike that made Ruth's death so mysterious - and so frightening.

There is another element in this story that sets it apart from other early post-war novels. Hope House's administrator and her assistant are obviously involved in a lesbian relationship, although Lawrence never actually spells this out. Other relationships between the many girls in the house are also referred to in a way that keeps you guessing - something you don't often come across in a 1940's novel written by a woman.

This edition features an introduction by UK crime writer Minette Walters, obviously a fan of Lawrence's work. Hilda Lawrence wrote only four novels and two novelettes, all during the 1940s, before disappearing from the literary landscape. Like fellow crime writers Pamela Branch and Patricia Wentworth, little biographical information is available.

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