Tuesday, July 28, 2015

back to the past #14: Murder in the Mist, by Zelda Popkin

Replica Books, 2001
originally published 1940, Lippincott
286 pp

"A country inn is a percolator. News seeps, simmers, and bubbles."
 Published in 1940, Murder in the Mist is a true whodunit in every sense of the word.  In fact, it is one of the best whodunits I've read in a very long time. No angsty detectives, no gratuitous sex or off-the-wall violence in this one -- it is pure mystery-reading pleasure.  As you might be able to surmise from my photo, Murder in the Mist also makes for great by-the-pool reading.

A brief look at the author.
Born in 1898 in Brooklyn,   Zelda Popkin's (née Feinberg) parents were Jewish immigrants who had originally named her Jenny, a name she herself changed.   By the time she was sixteen, she had a job with the local newspaper in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. Eventually Zelda moved to New York where she met her husband Louis; together they started a public relations firm, one of the first in the city.  Sadly, Louis died in 1943, and Zelda decided to turn her hand to writing, closing the PR firm and settling into life as an author.  Between 1945 and 1946, she was sent by the Red Cross to take a tour of the displaced-persons camps that were home to refugees from the Holocaust.  According to her grandson, Professor Jeremy D. Popkin of the University of Kentucky writing about Zelda in an introduction to her novel Quiet Street,
"What she saw 'shocked her into Zionism', as she later told an interviewer, and drove her for the first time to put a Jewish theme and Jewish characters in a central place in her writing."
She had a  had a long and prolific writing career that began in 1938 with the first book in the Mary Carner mystery series, Death Wears a White Gardenia.  She would go on to write four more books in this series, of which Murder in the Mist is the second entry. Another crime novel, So Much Blood (1944),  was written as a standalone, bringing her mystery/detective novels to a total of six.  [You can find a complete list of Popkin's work here.]   She didn't limit herself to crime writing, though -- she has several fiction novels to her credit as well:  The Journey Home (1945), Small Victory (1947), Walk Through the Valley (1949), and Quiet Street (1951), Herman Had Two Daughters (1968), A Death of Innocence (1971), and Dear Once (1975).   She also penned an autobiographical work called Open Every Door (1956), which, according to her grandson, started out as a biography of Zelda's husband Louis but 
"developed instead into the author’s autobiography, recounting her childhood in small towns in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania and her subsequent career."
 Mrs. Popkin died in 1983.  Although she may be a forgotten, obscure crime writer, her novels were very popular -- she won the National Jewish Book Award in 1952 for her Quiet Street, and her A Death of Innocence was made into a TV movie in 1971.  I may have to read more about this woman in the future; I'll certainly be trying to get my hands on her detective novels.

and now, back to the show... The Rockledge in Laneport, Massachusetts is home to summer visitors, built while Chester A. Arthur was in the White House. This seaside inn is run by Miss Dow and Miss Moffett, "plump, amiable spinsters, pompadoured, energetic..." who pride themselves in making sure they allow only the right sort of people in their establishment.  On one typical evening, a bridge game is interrupted by the entrance of a new arrival, a beautiful woman wearing red sandals. This is Nola Spain, a model who has come to Laneport with her little daughter.  She asks for directions to a local art gallery and sets off to her destination.  Later, two other guests arrive who are there on their honeymoon after just being married that morning.  On their way to Kennebunkport, they had missed a turn in the fog, ending up instead in Laneport.  Late that night, actually in the wee hours of the morning the next day, bride Mary is awakened by strange noises and the touch of a hand which belongs to the small daughter of Nola Spain. It seems that she can't wake up her mommy and is afraid because she saw "a witch" in the room.  Mary, who is none other than the renowned Mary Carney, New York City store detective, goes into Nola's room and finds the model  laying in bed with the dagger-like object still stuck in her after someone had killed her.  Mary calls the police but the Chief is so inept that he ruins the crime scene, making Mary see red.  Eventually the bona fides of both her husband Chris and herself are established, and Mary is asked by the local DA to take on the case.  With very little to go on, including the murder weapon, the little girl's description of "the witch" that came into her mother's room and a strange footprint that resembles a cloven hoof, Mary has her work cut out for her.

While this may sound like an average whodunit story, it is actually anything but.  Popkin has a deft touch at writing people, and the guests at the Rockledge (as well as the full-time residents of Laneport)  all have interesting backstories and many of them are hiding secrets behind their closed doors that they will go to great lengths to protect. As the author notes at the beginning of Chapter VIII,
"A country inn is a percolator. News seeps, simmers, and bubbles"
and nowhere is this more true than at the Rockledge. Its proprietors and some of the guests of the inn are very into "types" -- after Nola's murder, a Miss Templeton offers the opinion that "she was a very low type," and that Nola brought her death on herself:
"Only certain types of people get themselves murdered. People who have done something which makes other people want to kill them. People like ourselves, for instance, our sort of people never gets murdered." 
There is also a difference in the minds of the locals between the full-time residents and "the summer people," and commentary about small-town politics and small-town life. As just one example, the "Sabbath peace" tradition that is observed by everyone is noted as being
"centuries old, not to be thrust aside by the transitory turmoils of summer people."
Mary and husband Chris steal the show in this novel with their particular brand of sarcastic, snarky humor, and as soon as I can track down the other novels in this series,  I'll be back for more.

Murder in the Mist is an absolute gem and a delightful summery read.  Even though it was published back in 1940, its age should not deter any true-blue dedicated mystery fans from reading and enjoying this book. I absolutely loved it and would definitely say that if you're lucky enough to get your hands on a copy, you should go lay out in your lounger chair and let it carry you away for an afternoon or two. I definitely recommend it for people like myself who LOVE vintage crime and who are looking for something very different to add to their repertoire.


  1. Nancy, another good one, huh? My mother had a huge collection of Dell books, and even though I am not familiar with this particular book, some of Zelda's other titles sound very familiar. My mother was a great reader, and there were always books around. I am becoming interested in this vintage crime genre.

    1. Skye, one of the best so far! There were some bits of conversation between Mary and her husband where I was actually laughing out loud. And there is such a wide array of suspects in this book that it is never dull. I love these old books.

    2. Nancy, I love that! I enjoy Sue Grafton's books for that reason, and I have noticed that more popular crime/thriller/suspense novels follow a trend, and that, to me gets BORING, or the crime are so horrifically graphic that it is hard for me to continue---kind of like romancing the gruesome.

    3. I read Mo Hayder's novel Birdman and was absolutely appalled at all of the gratuitous violence in that book, so much so,that I refuse to read another. Seriously. It was way too over the top for me. But I think more people prefer to dwell in sick gore these days.

  2. I love your sticky tabs. That is what my books look like when I am done and my husband thinks I am crazy. I am eager to read something by this author. And that vintage cover looks like a Dell map back. I have to find a copy.

    Thanks for the review and the information on the author.

    1. My husband thinks I'm crazy too. Plus those little tabs get loose every so often and they end up everywhere.

      It is a Dell map back!


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it