Monday, May 17, 2021

The Preying Mantis by Nancy Rutledge (1947)

About the author: Nancy Rutledge (1901-1976) was the author of ten works of crime fiction between 1944 and 1960 under her own name, two of them published only in England. She also had one mystery novel published as by Leigh Bryson in 1947. Rutledge had eight mystery novels serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and one in a 1960 issue of Redbook. (gadetection) (bibliography)

Major characters:

  • Curtis Hilton, civil engineer
  • Horatia, his housekeeper
  • Douglas Trevor, his cousin
  • Barbara Sandine, society reporter for The Blade, Trevor's fiancĂ©
  • Ricki Anthony, Trevor's spur-of-the-moment bride
  • Paulo Murdock, Ricki's philanthropist uncle
  • Lutz Walters, Paulo's secretary / strong-arm man

Locale: The midwest

Synopsis: Curtis Hilton receives a call from his cousin/roommate, Douglas Trevor, but he can hardly make him out. Trevor is badly injured in a hotel room somewhere. The next day, Hilton receives a telegram informing him Trevor is dead in a fall off a train, and his widow is accompanying his body home for burial.

This is a double surprise for Hilton - not only is his cousin dead, but he had been engaged to someone else: Barbara Sandine, society reporter for The Blade. 

Hilton meets the train carrying the body and meets the new bride: Ricki Anthony, now Ricki Anthony Trevor. She is accompanied by her uncle, millionaire philanthropist Paulo Murdock. Hilton also finds that Ricki is totally blind. Things do not add up - why had Doug suddenly dropped Barbara to marry a stranger?

Paulo and Ricki begin to work on Curtis. They are looking for a small jeweled preying mantis, but will not reveal why. Douglas had it and was sending it to Curtis, but Douglas was killed for it.

Paulo and his secretary/strong-arm man Lutz Walters take Barbara hostage to force Curtis to give up the mantis. In return, Curtis takes Ricki hostage to force the release of Barbara - a standoff. 

Review: This story involves everyone seeking a jeweled preying mantis, for reasons not stated until late in the story. It is clear, however, it has some mysterious use and is not being sought for the intrinsic value of its jewels. It reminded me immediately of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929), which preceded it by 18 years. Perhaps it had some influence. 

The most interesting aspect - and one that I enjoyed immensely - is the style of the writing. Curtis Hilton is our protagonist. The story is told in the third person, but interspersed are sections set in italics, which represent Curtis’ voice in his head - his thoughts at the moment as he ponders developments and makes choices. This made it easy to follow his reasoning and actually does a lot of the reader’s work us, allowing us to follow the story effortlessly.

It is known the preying mantis is concealed somewhere. It was clear to me from the beginning where it was, as the location is mentioned several times by the author as the story develops, without apparent reason. But that did not detract from the enjoyment. 

This story led me to look up Nancy Rutledge’s bibliography (below) and seek out other titles, and get The Maltese Falcon off my shelf for a long overdue re-read.

Beware the Hoot Owl (1944)
Blood On the Cat (1946)
THe Preying Mantis (1947)
Murder For Millions (1949)
Easy to Murder (1951)
Cry Murder (1954)
Murder in Disguise (1956)
The Frightened Murderer (1957)
Death Stalks the Bride (1958)
Escape Into Danger (1959)
Forgotten World (1960)
Alibi For Murder (1961)


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