Morna Doris MacTaggart (1907-95) devoted her writing career to detective fiction. For some as yet unexplained reason, she was known as Elizabeth Ferrars in the United Kingdom and E. X. Ferrars on the American side of the Atlantic.
From 1940 until her death, she produced 71 detective novels and 30 short stories. Once again, Douglas Greene’s Crippen & Landru Publishers have done mystery fans a great service by putting together the 17 stories that have never before been collected. The results are well worth your time and money.
In one story, Ferrars has a character who is basically a stand-in for her say: “I know I bring in a murder now and then, just to keep things going, but I make it happen among nice people, living in the suburbs, nice, cultivated people with nice comfortable incomes, the sort of people, actually, who in real life practically never take to violence.” As editor John Cooper remarks: “This exactly sums up the type of detective novel that Ferrars herself usually wrote.”
Understandably, then, it’s the rare character in a Ferrars story who isn’t compromised in some way — quite a few of them are surprised at themselves when they do evil without being schooled in it. In Ferrars’s fiction, the world exists in many shades of gray. But while a villain might seem to get away with it sometimes, Ferrars frequently hints that somewhere, some time down the road, ineluctable justice will be meted out.
Roughly half of the stories in CASEBOOK can be classified as whodunits, withholding solutions until near the end. The six tales featuring Jonas P. Jonas, a professional investigator, fall into this category, as do several others with amateur (and unsuspecting and occasionally unwilling) sleuths. The rest of the stories fit into generic crime fiction, where the emphasis is primarily on the criminal and his/her psychology and less on the crime itself.
The Jonas P. Jonas Stories — Whodunits
(1) “The Case of the Two Questions” (1958)
Uncle Jonas, a garrulous old gentleman now retired, pesters his niece, a writer, to record his adventures as an investigator, convinced that they are worth memorializing.
Jonas’s first case involves the murder of a wealthy man. The entire problem centers on how someone of middle age and in poor health could have covered a hundred yards in less than five minutes without breathing hard after shooting the victim, and how this same person could have driven a car through shallow water without getting the tires wet. If that seems impossible to you, Uncle Jonas has a far simpler solution.
(2) “The Case of the Blue Bowl” (1958)
Uncle Jonas reminisces to his reluctant niece about the murder of Emily Toombs, an elderly woman who lived alone. All of the neighbors are convinced Emily’s nephew, an antiques dealer, did her in, but several things make Jonas doubtful, including the fact that Emily had cancelled her milk delivery but not her mail; the discovery of a milk bottle and the handle of a cheap teacup; and the discordant fact that she had apparently used an expensive bowl to secure a note to the milkman. The supreme irony of it all, though, is that the killer had slashed her mattress in a frantic but fruitless search for hidden loot, never suspecting that Emily’s wealth was everywhere but in the bedding.
(3) “The Case of the Auction Catalogue” (1958)
Uncle Jonas’s eccentric reading habits help him clear an innocent man of suspicion of murder aboard a train. After a woman is found dead, everyone suspects that extremely agitated man who had left the train just before the crime was discovered. Jonas, however, works from seemingly inconsequential facts — such as that bag in the “wrong” place, misplaced cigarette butts, and the shifting angle of the sun — to eliminate the obvious suspect and finger the real culprit.
(4) “The Case of the Left Hand” (1958)
Uncle Jonas recalls the difficult time he had trailing an escaped criminal. His main problem is having to decide which of two equally likely men is the escapee, since this individual is a master of disguises. The solution ultimately boils down to a half-eaten roll on a plate.
(5) “Invitation to Murder – On the Party Line” (1958)
When a dotty old lady insists that she has been overhearing phone conversations plotting a murder, everyone, including Uncle Jonas, concludes she’s just barmy. Nevertheless, on the off chance there might be something to it, Jonas stakes out the place — and discovers that a crime really is in the making. “You know,” Jonas tells his niece, “that was one of the fastest bits of thinking I ever did in my life. It was suddenly seeing the way all the bits fit together.”
(6) “A Lipstick Smear Points to the Killer” (1958)
Sometimes, without meaning to, people interfere with the normal course of justice. Uncle Jonas remembers a case of murder — barbiturate poisoning — and the three prime suspects: a housekeeper, a grandson, and a niece of a wealthy elderly gentleman. One of them is guilty, while one of them, literally in the dark, tampers with forensic evidence that would inculpate the murderer.
(7) “Custody” (1990) — Crime Fiction
Ray Bagstock did not murder Mrs. Moira Crane. The crime that he had in mind was something quite different.
(8) “The Trap” (1961) — Crime Fiction
“She said she thought she’d done the only thing there was to do.”
“She can’t have meant murder!”
“Then who else did it? You? Me?”
(9) “Stop Thief!” (1992) — Crime Fiction
Lunging across the kitchen, he seized her round the neck as she stood at the telephone and shook her and shook her until he knew that her neck was broken. She had replaced the receiver: there was no one to hear her screams.
(10) “The Long Way Round” (1972) — Crime Fiction
The sight of death did not frighten him, for he had seen enough of it to be hardened during the war. But as he heard the angry bark of the gun in his hand, he felt the first real fear. But the echo died and silence followed. Somewhere not far away a hen cackled loudly . . . .
(11) “Fly, Said the Spy” (1983) — Espionage Fiction
They had promised that he had nothing to fear, that they would arrange his getaway. They had promised to look after him to start a new life. But he had never quite trusted them to do these things.
(12) “Instrument of Justice” (1981) — Crime Fiction
In its silence she first began to feel the real horror of the situation. Here she was with food and wine in her hands for a woman who lay in a room downstairs with her body cooling and her head battered in.
(13) “Suicide?” (1963) — Whodunit
“Well, why would a murderer go and leave the lights on?” Buller asked. “You’d think it’s the last thing he’d do.”
(14) “Look for Trouble” (1964) — Whodunit
“So there’s trouble again, is there? Same sort of trouble?”
The foreign accent had quite disappeared from his voice.
“Worse, Mr. Jones,” said Inspector Fryer flatly. “It isn’t burglary this time, it’s murder.”
(15) “Justice in My Own Hands” (1988) — Whodunit
A revolver, or an automatic pistol, or whatever it was, was lying on the floor just beside the bed and one of her hands hung down over the edge of the bed, almost touching the gun. Marion was in the middle of the room, shrieking.
(16) “The Handbag” (1960) — Whodunit
She walked straight on, holding out one hand.
“Give it to me,” she repeated.
The man in the doorway seemed suddenly petrified, watching her come. Then the gun pointed straight at her.
(17) “Sequence of Events” (1977) — Whodunit Spoof
His death had seemed a pure waste, a brutal and senseless tragedy. He had been on his way, late one summer evening, to post some letters in a letter-box near his cottage, when he had been set upon by some person or persons unknown and battered to death.
B. Appendix 1: Novels (with series sleuths) and Short Stories by E. X. Ferrars
C. Appendix 2: Critics’ Comments