Death’s Old Sweet Song (1946) by Jonathan Stagge

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 ” Two, two the lily-white boys,                                                                                                                        Clothed all in green-O                                                                                                                                                                                                                One is One

And all alone                                                                                                                                    And ever more shall be-O.”                                                                                                                 

These are the opening verses of an old English folk song – Green Grow the Rushes-O, one that becomes the center of this story’s plot; providing a series of murders that rival And Then There Were None’s in terms of amount and diabolical means.

Death’s Old Sweet Song starts of with Dr. Westlake going on a picnic with a group of wealthy and well known citizens from the town of Skipton. Instead of using the landscaped picnic grounds on the estate of Ernesta Bray, the group decides to make use of a small and rarely visited spot near a abandoned saw mill, where they feast on caviar and maple walnut cake. The picnic really isn’t a success – Ernesta not being present causes a general feeling of uneasiness, and a it cumulates in a thunder storm engulfing the group, leading to a mad dash towards shelter.

Inevitably, several of the party become lost and wander across the rocky landscape searching for safety. In all of the chaos, no one notices the disappearance of Bobby and Billy White; a set of havoc making twins, and oversight that costs the lives of the two. Both are found in a nearby pond, their heads bashed in, and their bodies left to soak in the murky water. This cold hearted crime sets off a series of murders, all based around the previously mentioned folk song, a series of deaths that would make any would-be serial killer proud!

Death’s Old Sweet Song is pure mayhem. There is almost no rhyme or reason to the structure of the deaths or the plot as a whole. What we get is non stop action – murder after murder, strange occurrence after strange occurrence, its chaos at its finest. dossIt reads like the novelized version of a serial killer movie; a closed group of victims with one seemingly chosen at random to pick them off one by one. You can easily imagine a movie based on this, complete with a shadowy figure brandishing a knife behind a unassuming and quite idiotic young lady, and that’s what makes it so fun.

This is entertainment through and through – it might not make sense in the moment, or seems incredibly ridiculous, but you don’t care. Its refreshing, and a breeze to read. You could describe it as a flight of fancy, and it is, but it’s a damn good one. We get pummeled by new turn and new twist at every corner. You never get bored reading, and it passes by incredibly quickly, though the short page count contributes to it.

It’s an early specimen of the slasher sort of thriller that has invaded the book market of today’s world.  Instead of becoming dark and psychological, it retains a sense of The Golden Age. It feels like it could take place in the 1940s without a hitch and it manages to implement tropes from the period fluidly. It maintains this sense of the past, while still being modern enough to not be outdated. But while it is joyful in its Golden Age sensibilities and set up, the slasher theme central to the narrative presents flaws that pervade the work.

There is no richness to the actual mystery plot here. Instead of legitimate investigation and deduction, we get that action packed narrative of event after event with no space in between for actual detection. Dr. Westlake barely does anything beside pander to the suspects, and while he does create theories around the deaths, they never are taken up on. In essence, it almost feels hollow. There’s a literal police force that has inundated Skipton, and yet they cannot even prevent murders clearly hinted at by the song or investigate to the barest capacity. They are only present because police have to be present in order for this to retain a touch of realism, and have no other function besides that; handy dandy if a solo amateur ends up solving it, but this story features around a collaboration with Westlake and a police inspector.

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Its inept in this way – the only plot we really get besides the murders and a few revelations is the solution, one that is minimally hinted at and only come upon due to a sudden moment of inspiration of Westlake’s part. One clue allows for him to fully see the puzzle, and there is no real buildup to it, instead its sudden and unexpected, not giving what could be called a satisfying conclusion.

However, the solution itself is brilliant. There’s a reversal surrounding the deaths that completely blew me away – a reversal that one could find in the best of Carr, one that puts everything into perspective and makes the events all make sense. The usage of several clues and coincidence is deftly handled, and conversations/hints from hundreds of pages before can finally be examined in a new light adding a new angle to the crimes.

As for the culprit, they basically feel like they are drawn out of a hat. They have a good reason behind the crime and decent means, but there’s no real impact or shock, and killing the amount of people that they did is utterly ridiculous, especially when it surrounds a detail that almost anyone would forget. You could readjust a few elements of the motive and then slap the title of murderer onto anyone else with no issue, but that’s something that applies to a large chunk of GAD. I’m still content with how things turned out, and if its not good at the least then it holds the title of above average easily.

Death’s Old Sweet Song is a chaotic bundle of murders that completely entertains and invests. A early example of the serial killer novel, it sets up the basic formula that would become much more widely used in later decades while still retaining the feeling of The Golden Age. While some of the mystery might be slight in certain ways, it still has its fair share of plusses, and while parts might dissatisfy me, I still feel immensely fulfilled at the end of it. Thanks to those who blogged about it and nominated it for Reprint of the Year, it was definitely worth the acquisition – 4/5 for it.

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11 thoughts on “Death’s Old Sweet Song (1946) by Jonathan Stagge

  1. I’m a huge fan of this book. I’d give it a bit more credit on the clueing side than you did. The motivation is clearly presented, it’s just given in such a low-key way it makes you miss it. As for the number of murders, they play against the ‘Our Town’ stylings of Skipton to great effect. The technique used with Ernesta was well done. I should have seen it coming.

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    1. I’m in agreement when it comes to the small town feel of Skipton and how it’s juxtaposed with the murders. The way such brutal killings are placed against what could be called a stereotypically American town is used to great effect, and it contributes a lot to the story.

      The technique revolving Ernesta is very, very good. It uses our preconceived expectations to pull the rug out from under us, and everything is so obvious once put in retrospect. The best GAD solutions make us feel like idiots for not seeing everything sooner, and DOSS has success in that regard.

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  2. You pretty much summarized my thoughts on this one, although I think you rated it about half a mark too high. It’s an enjoyable breezy read for when you’re in the mood for something different, but don’t come in expecting a classic mystery novel. But yeah, you kind of get a classic style solution.

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    1. Yeah, this isn’t really a classic GAD novel. It’s closer to more modern serial killer novels with a lot of Golden Age sensibilities and ideas/troupes thrown in for good measure.

      I do enjoy the solution a lot – it only keeps getting better as time passes by. It and the constant stream of murders probably make up the high points of the story, but overall I still got a good kick out of it, even if its flaws are apparent.

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  3. Byrnside loves it, you and Ben demur a little…man, what to make of this one?! I’m still a real ingenue where Quentin/Stagge are concerned, and perhaps one day I’ll find a copy cheap enough (or be enthusiastic enough about their writing to not mind investing a little more) to enable me to pick a side. Until then, colour me very intrigued…

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    1. This was my first Quentin, and I can’t say that I’ve been converted or that I’m someone who doesn’t enjoy his work. Only time and a bit of money can tell, but given the prices of some of his novels, I’ll probably be going down a well traveled route.

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      1. I keep saying it, and I do mean it: I really must read the second Peter Duluth book at some point, I’ll try to wedge it into the TBR and see if the whole things falls over…

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  4. I read this earlier this year and quite liked it. 4/5 feels about right, but I might be talked into a bit higher. I have read several Quentins now, I call the consortium QPQ, and have found them pretty consistently good but have not read a great one yet. I got a dozen of them for two bucks each on Kindle.
    If you liked this try The Grindle Nightmare.

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