Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mail of mystery

Black Mail by Doris Miles Disney is a mystery novel first published in 1959. The Zebra edition I read this week came out in 1989. Going by the stamps in the back of the library book, I seem to be the first person to take it out since 1993. So it's fair to say this is a somewhat forgotten title. The same could be said of the author.

Disney was a New England author, originally from Connecticut. So the book gives a not-bad impression of New England small town life in the post-WW2 era. It's part of a short-running series centered on Postal Inspector David Madden. The fact that there aren't many detective stories about Postal Inspectors made me curious to read this one.

As far as writing goes, this is pretty good, not spectacular. For prolific authors of popular fiction, pretty good is nothing to sneeze at. But the book is also a document of its time, in ways that might not have been intended.

The barebones of the plot is this. An imperious upper middle class housewife - Inez Blaine - is incensed that young banker Lucia Ruyter broke up with her son, who then moved to a new job in Seattle. The son doesn't seem to be all that broken up about being turned down, but never mind that. On instinct, Inez tried to run Lucia down with her car. That doesn't work, so she tries a new tack of writing poison pen letters to Lucia and to the bank, hoping to get the girl fired and generally ruin her life.

Some values haven't changed in the past half century. Inez Blaine would be considered a lunatic now, and she's presented as a lunatic in the novel. This despite a couple of nicely written passages that show her own feelings of outsiderdom in the small town community. But the obscene letters she writes essentially make the charge that Lucia has screwed a bunch of guys without being married to them. It's not true, but even if it were it's hard to imagine a woman now being blackmailed or blackballed on those charges. Whether it's the sexual revolution, the women's movement, or the fact that it's a pain in the ass to train new loan officers when the old ones sleep with their boyfriends, society has moved on.

As it turns out, the Postal Inspection Service parts of the novel are interesting too. As is the unconsciously condescending attitude toward working women. One of these things is intentional and the other is a matter of weird luck.


susan said...

When I visited last night I thought I'd safely left a rather long comment but it appears to have disappeared. Ah well, I'll try to remember what I can.

The book sounds pretty cool and I've never read a mystery featuring a postal inspector either. I hope Lucia didn't get killed over the course of the story by the miserable Inez.

It's true that attitudes have changed over the passing decades - always nice to see some positive changes in our current era.

Lastly, although it's been a long time since I last borrowed a book from a library I do remember them being scanned. It was always kind of cool to see when someone else had last read the one I'd picked up.

Ben said...

I do like seeing the history of the books in the back.

Well, this book doesn't have a nihilistic ending. An unlikely one, maybe.

And I don't know what happened to your previous comment. I can say for sure that I didn't erase it. Could have been a site glitch.