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
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.