One of my favorite American authors is Elizabeth Daly, the creator of biblio expert and generally-reluctant sleuth Henry Gamadge. I am in good company in expressing my admiration for her, as she is said to have been among Agatha Christie's favorite American authors as well. Gamadge is a highly-regarded expert on manuscripts, old documents and signatures and such who generally lives and works in New York. One of my favorite Daly books, though, is set primarily in the Berkshires, in central New England. It is called Evidence of Things Seen, and I reviewed it on one of my early podcasts. Here's a slightly edited version of my original audio reviews:
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Twilight in the Berkshire Mountains, in northwestern Connecticut. A woman appears, wearing a faded sundress and a bonnet that hides her face. She is seen only from a distance – then melts back into the woods. Is it the ghost of a murder victim, seeking retribution? Or is it a very real murderer seeking a new victim? That’s the central question in Evidence of Things Seen, by Elizabeth Daly.
Evidence of Things Seen has an uncanny setting. Clara Gamadge, the wife of Daly’s hero, Henry Gamadge, has gone with a housekeeper to a small cottage in the Berkshires. She is awaiting her husband’s return from a wartime mission – this was written in 1943, in the midst of World War II – and the arrival of some friends who are to spend the summer with her in the cottage.
She loves the cottage and the peaceful country surrounding it – but she is deeply disturbed by the mysterious appearances, always at a distance, of the woman in the sunbonnet. There are rumors that she may be the ghost of the former owner of the cottage and, the rumors say, she may have been murdered by her sister, who is the Gamadges’ landlord at the cottage.
Clara doesn’t believe this, or at least she tells herself she doesn’t – though a surprising number of people around her DO seem inclined to believe both sets of rumors.
It is amazing the amount of tension that can be generated by a skilled author in describing something as prosaic as the appearance of a mysterious person, always wearing the same sundress, always with her face hidden by that sunbonnet. To add to the suspense, the attic door in the closet seems to come open by itself after each appearance of the woman, and an investigation of the attic turns up what appear to be the exact dress and sunbonnet – hanging up there unused.
Eventually, there is a murder, and it seems to be done in Clara’s presence, and quite possibly by that mysterious woman – although there is no sign that she actually came into the room where Clara was sitting up with the murder victim.
Listen to this description – again, Clara has been sitting up with a woman who has been badly injured in a fall:
She felt thirsty, thought of going to the kitchen for ice water, and suddenly realized that she was afraid to get up and walk out into the lighted dining room. She was afraid to move from her chair.
I’ve read about this, she thought. This is what happens to people who sit up all night in a haunted house; it gets them. Anything can happen. People don’t wake when you call, or they’re all dead.
She was still gazing at her watch, which seemed to have stopped, or had all those thoughts rushed through her mind in a few seconds, and was it still twenty minutes to one? There was a small sound like something dropping to the floor, and she raised her eyes in time to see the sealed door swing open, pushed by a brownish hand at the end of an arm clad in faded purple. It was there, against a screen of darkness; shapeless and faceless in its black-sprigged garment and its collapsed sunbonnet, it seemed to dominate the room.
If it comes in I shall go out of my mind, thought Clara. I shall go out of my mind if I see its face. But it did not come in, it was there only a moment; it faded or moved aside, it was no longer in the doorway; it had retreated as if before Clara’s presence, as if unable to enter the room while she sat staring at it.
That is a wonderfully evocative passage, and, I think, it’s fairly typical of Daly’s writing. And, of course, the body of the murder victim is then discovered. While Clara is not suspected of the murder, her version of the story – and her sanity – are very much in question.
That is the situation when Henry Gamadge returns home from his mysterious mission overseas. Learning of the developments at the cottage, he rushes to the Berkshires – not only to support his wife, but to do so in the only way that will actually matter: he sets to work sorting out what really happened, how the murder was committed, by whom, and – most significantly – why. Gamadge is no believer in ghosts – and that, ultimately, will be most unfortunate for the person responsible for the murder.
I like Henry Gamadge. He is smart without being overpowering. He is observant – and his author, Elizabeth Daly, is scrupulously fair, giving readers the same clues Gamadge uses to solve the mystery. I think Evidence of Things Seen is a very good introduction to Gamadge and to Elizabeth Daly.
You can listen to the original podcast by clicking here.
Next week: The Criminal C.O.D., by Phoebe Atwood Taylor.