Do you like mysteries? Well, here’s one for you. In fact, it’s almost a proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The riddle is, can an almost forgotten writer be revived? The mystery is, literally, a detective novel called “She Shall Have Murder.” And the enigma is its author, Mount Vernon’s own Delano Ames.
Ames was born in Mount Vernon in 1906. His father, Benjamin Ames, was president of this very newspaper. His great-grandfather was the political power-broker Columbus Delano, who maneuvered Abraham Lincoln into the Republican nomination for president in 1860. For all his pedigreed ancestry and family wealth, though, Ames preferred to keep a low profile. He spent most of his life traveling and living in different places around the world, but all that is really known about the man is that he wrote. His main fare was mysteries, including a popular series featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, set in England. Ames died in Spain just over 20 years ago, and over the years, all of his books drifted out of print.
But thanks to a dedicated publisher in Colorado, Ames is making a comeback among mystery fans. Rue Morgue Press was started by Tom and Enid Schantz in Lyons, Colo., in 1997, with the stated goal of bringing classics from the golden age of detective fiction back into print. And mystery lovers everywhere have been rejoicing ever since.
With “She Shall Have Murder,” published in 1948, Ames inaugurated a series of a dozen books featuring Jane Hamish and Dagobert Brown, a couple living in London. Later in the series, they get married, thus becoming one of the classic husband/wife sleuthing teams. Jane works as a clerk and typist at a law office in London, and her boyfriend is Dagobert, a restless, grandly overeducated charmer who never quite manages to keep a real job for long.
Dagobert is thought by many to be more than a bit of a self-portrait by the author. Whether Jane was inspired by one of Ames’ wives isn’t known, but the book is tremendously engaging, because the down-to-earth Jane is alternately excited and exasperated by Dagobert’s eccentricities.
But unlike many female detective characters of the period, Jane is as active a sleuth as her beau. The two challenge each other and combine their efforts to make new breakthroughs on a case involving the suspicious death of a little old lady, Mrs. Robjohn. No one believes Mrs. Robjohn when she says suspicious persons are following her. Her subsequent death appears to be a simple accident, until Dagobert puts a few clues together and realizes it wasn’t.
One of the most delightful things about the book is that Ames flashes with dry wit at every turn. The dialogue is snappy and though Ames’ descriptions are spare, they are pithy, to the point. For a detective story from over 50 years ago, of course, some things are going to be dated. Jane works on a typewriter, not a laptop computer. English money is given in old shilling-and-pence style. Almost everybody smokes. But the period elements just seem to give it the right feel for the genre, only instead of a hard-bitten professional gumshoe, we get a curious legal secretary and her egghead boyfriend as amateur sleuths.
While this is the first Ames mystery Rue Morgue Press has published, the Schantzes are considering more. If Jane and Dagobert find sufficient readership, we may be seeing a lot more of them in the near future, not to mention other mysteries Ames wrote. Those interested in exploring the work of this son of Mount Vernon can visit www.ruemorguepress.com or call (800) 699-6214.
Thus the riddle remains: Will Delano Ames once again become a hit? Let’s hope so, because “She Shall Have Murder” is a delightful read, and I look forward to reading more.