<== The very first thing you might notice about this book is its ugly cover. When you compare it to this UK paperback edition,
you really notice how unappealing it is. Or if you look at this one,
I can definitely claim to have the ugliest edition of the bunch. Oh well. I'm not one to judge a book by its cover, but jeez -- for a first edition, you'd have thought that the publishers would have made it a bit more exciting to the eye.
As usual, first it's all about the author. Louisa Revell is the pseudonym of Ellen Hart Smith who, aside from her career as a mystery novelist, also wrote a famous biography of Charles Carroll called Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Strangely enough, finding biographical information about Ellen Hart Smith isn't that easy, but I'll certainly keep looking. All I know for sure is that she died in 1985 and that as Louisa Revell, she has seven mystery books to her credit, all featuring retired Latin teacher Julia Tyler from Rossville, Virginia as the main character:
The Bus Station Murders (1947)
No Pockets in Shrouds (1948)
A Silver Spade (1950)
The Kindest Use a Knife (1952)
The Men With Three Eyes (1955)
See Rome and Die (1957)
A Party for the Shooting (1960)
The crimes in this series take place where ever Miss Julia goes on vacation. She's 67 years old, and is a huge fan of murder mysteries, as evidenced by her mention of such authors as Mignon Eberhart, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ngaio Marsh, Leslie Ford (who I'll now add to my list of obscure women crime writers to find), and I know there are more. Because she's such a constant reader of mystery novels, she has a tendency to want to do some sleuthing on her own, and we get to see her in action in this book. She is, in fact, on the scene when the first murder occurs, on the very bus taking her to her destination. As they reach the Annapolis bus station, the small group passengers begin to disembark, passing a "gray-haired woman" who seems to be sound asleep. Julia's seatmate wonders out loud how anyone could possibly sleep through all the noise, but it soon becomes obvious:
"The reason was, of course, that the woman was dead,"the weapon a silver knitting needle. While Julia isn't too keen on getting involved in this particular case, she does a 180 when she realizes that the policeman in charge is one of her former students. He encourages her help, noting that he's counting on her "to be another Miss Marple or Miss Silver."
Between the two of them, they discover that half of the people on the bus had motive enough for wanting the woman dead; now they just have to figure out who was actually responsible. They have to hurry though, because while they're collaborating, more people are being murdered.
While Miss Julia is definitely enough of a quirky character to make this book worthwhile, the setting is also quite interesting and worthy of mention. Annapolis is a very Navy town but at the same time, there are a number of people who are interested in preserving its colonial character. The author is obviously quite familiar with Annapolis, and is able to describe some of its more run-down areas just as well as several of its famous houses and buildings complete with histories. The local chapter of the DAR is well attended, and there are different historical and building-preservation groups one can join as well. On the Navy end of it, she describes the students who come out of Annapolis as being "trained technically and trained socially and gentlemen (sic) by Act of Congress..." The Navy aspects of the town filter down into social circles as well -- the author describes a a strict social hierarchy based on rank not just among officers but among their wives and the "Navy etiquette" that exists within them. Since this book is set during wartime, she also depicts several of her female characters as sewing for the Red Cross, putting up with shortages, etc. But beyond all of that, there is also an interesting look at the mental health issues of returning soldiers that still rings true nearly 70 years after this book was written.
Although Miss Julia can slip into various social groups in her little-old-lady persona, the book doesn't end up becoming just another Jane Marple-type mystery at all. Miss Julia speaks her mind about everything and everyone and can be rather feisty when crossed. Will I read another book to see where murder follows her again? Highly likely -- I rather like this character but even more, I enjoy the author's insights about the town, about the people, and about people dealing with wartime issues. Very much worth the read.