Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tea'd Off: Death Comes to Tea (1940), by Theodora DuBois

After an affair as shocking as my tea party on January twentieth, you naturally think back and try to discover the origin of the trouble....

By 1940, when Theodore DuBois published Death Comes to Tea, the British Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh had become the most notable representatives of classic, ratiocinative mystery for many detective fiction readers.

a terrific American dust jacket, I think
--note the face in the vapor and the
skull and crossbones pattern
around the rim of the teacup
Early in Death Comes to Tea Anne McNeill, the feminine half of Theodora Dubois' series sleuthing couple and the novel's narrator, is found lying on a couch "before the living-room fire, re-reading a book by Dorothy Sayers," indicating to readers that they are perusing the sort of literate manners mystery that people had come to associate with Sayers, Allingham and Marsh (puzzle mistress extraordinaire Christie at this point was already in her own class).  Classical music (Mozart) and poetry (Pope) are referenced and the murderer is condemned not so much for wicked ways as for beastly bad form.

Although associated more with England than the United States, many such mysteries in fact were written by American authors, such as Theodora DuBois. Those who followed my links to earlier blog pieces in my previous posting will have learned more about DuBois and have seen that I greatly disliked her 1941 detective novel, Death is Late to Lunch, to a large extent on account of the snobbishness of Anne McNeill, wife of Dr. Jeffrey McNeill, a medical researcher at a prestigious Connecticut university (obviously Yale, where Theodora DuBois' husband, Delafield DuBois, was employed as a medical researcher).

Anne still strikes me as something of pill, but she is much more bearable here, where the novel takes place within an authoritatively-presented college milieu and her phlegmatic husband is much more in evidence than he was in Lunch.

Anne does go on about those with good breeding and those without it, speak condescendingly of an "ethnic" person--in this case her faithful maid, Mary (this when complimenting her own flower arrangements, which have "an artistic touch impossible to Mary's practical Irish hand")--and take time to wonder, when one of her husband's colleagues is fatally poisoned at her tea party, whether a stain will come out of a chair's upholstery.

Yet the murder is rather brilliantly carried out, the narrative smooth, the entanglements interesting and the writing good.  I even was in Anne's corner when she had to put up with a smug district attorney, prone to speaking patronizingly about "the ladies."

There is as well a good clue that allows Anne to solve the mystery, although I thought my choice for murderer would have made a stronger ending.  Is the novel a "small masterpiece," as Anthony Boucher believed?  I don't know that I would go as far as Boucher, but I did enjoy Tea; and I have been encouraged by it to keep reading DuBois.


  1. If a publisher like The Langtail Press reissues this novel they will probably edit out the ethnic character as happened with their edition of Berkeley's Piccadilly Murder. Sadly I've yet to experience the work of DuBois.Thanks for the heads up.

    1. If people start editing history where does it stop and how can we learn from it? On another note a copy of Masters of the Humdrum will now be residing at the London Library.

    2. Oh, I hope they don't do that! I rather liked Mary, and her loyalty to Anne makes me feel Anne must have something going for her (besides the fact that she, or her husband, pays Mary's salary). Besides, it's all interesting social history.

    3. PS: Good to hear about Masters, Lots of social history there!