I recently published a blog on Mary Roberts Rinehart where many mystery experts refer to her as the American Agatha Christie. Even though Christie published many years after her they base the comparison on Rinehart’s entire body of work. However, there is another author who has received the honor of being called the American Agatha Christie. This mystery author is Elizabeth Daly.
Agatha Christie said Elizabeth Daly was her favorite American mystery writer. Daly wrote during the same period as Agatha Christie and followed the guidelines established during the Golden Age of Mysteries by the British Detection Club. Besides being compared to Agatha Christie others liken her to Arthur Conan Doyle because of her intricate plots that challenges the reader to discover the solution. They also compare her detective Henry Gamadge to Dorothy Sayers detective Lord Peter Wimsey.
For older readers of this blog, it’s interesting to note that Ms. Daly was sixty-two when she published her first Henry Gamadge mystery novel.
Although Elizabeth Daly has faded from the public eye I believe its worth taking another look at her mystery series.
Daly’s Early Years
Elizabeth Daly was born on October 15, 1878 in New York City. Her father, Joseph Francis Daly, was a justice on the bench for the Supreme Court of New York County, and she was the niece of Augustin Daly who was a noted 1890s playwright and producer.
From the time she was a little girl, Daly loved games and puzzles. She was an avid reader of detective fiction and her favorite author was, Wilkie Collins. Her own writing career started at 16 when she published her short prose and poetry pieces in periodicals such as Puck, Life, and Scribner’s. However, she did not write a detective story until she was in her thirties. When she embraced the mystery genre, she felt that detective fiction was a high form of literature.
Ms. Daly attended Miss Baldwin’s School in Bryn Mawr, PA. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1901, and a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1902. After college she did not become a full-time writer. Instead, she tutored in French and English at Bryn Mawr College. Daly, like her detective, Henry Gamadge, had the financial independence and the leisure time to produce amateur theatricals, to read, and to write.
Daly’s first Gamadge novel was Unexpected Night published in 1940 and after this first entry she wrote 15 more Gamadge novels. Only once did she stray from the mystery genre when she wrote her fourth book called, The Street Has Changed. This novel covered forty years of the world of New York theater. Critics praised the work because of the accurate portrayal of the theater world. Daly claimed her research was easy since she grew up in a theatrical family.
Prior to her death she received an Edgar award from Mystery Writers of America for her body of work. Ms. Daly died in St. Francis Hospital on Long Island on September 2, 1967.
Daly is a skilled craftsman at describing 1940s New York where her detective, Gamadge lives and works. She is a master of transporting the reader to this world laden with the social manners and morals demanded at this time. It’s a time where before being admitted to the drawing rooms of friends and even suspects the visitor must present a calling card.
Her writing emphasizes family history, personal interests, and societal demands which provides the reader with everything needed to understand the characters in her books. This is different from mystery novels in today’s world where there is more of a desire to understand the psychology of what is driving the detective.
This doesn’t mean Daly’s writing is out-of-date. Her ability to describe this earlier time with such precision makes the reader feel these scenes could happen now. She is very adept at describing the location and these descriptions allow the reader to walk the streets with Henry Gamadge.
Daly is probably best known for her complex plots, which involve crimes of forgery, theft, and murder. They incorporate everything from reincarnations to apparitions, and her clever literary clues supporting Gamadge’s expertise with books. She received literary praise for her unexpected solutions to her crimes.
Plots Based on Books
Daly weaves many of her mystery plots around pieces of literature or some literary circumstance.
Murders in Volume 2 (1941) features the poetry of Byron. The Book of Dead (1944) revolves around Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The Wrong Way Down (1946) centers on a Bartolozzi engraving of a Holbein portrait, and The Book of the Lion (1948) involves a lost Chaucer manuscript. The solution of Death and Letters (1950), one of her last and most acclaimed novels, relies on the discovery of the secret sale of a Victorian poet’s love letters.
Who is Henry Gamadge?
Henry Gamadge was born in 1904 into a family where both his father and grandfather were interested in rare books. After he finished school, he followed the family’s interest in books, but he also added his own interest in puzzles.
He admits to having worked in intelligence during the World War II but offers few details as to his actual duties. His hobbies are bridge, golf, and listening to music. He married Clara Dawson in 1940 and has one son, born in 1943.
Although Gamadge lives more in the style of an English gentleman, he is a New Yorker and resides in the fashionable Murray Hill section. His family’s wealth allows him to live independently without worrying about employment, unless he accepts a commission for his expertise on old books. And some of these commissions lead to interesting cases. When members of his social set hire Henry Gamadge, they know he will handle their problem quietly and without publicity.
He’s not good-looking but has a way of catching people’s attention. People know he’s smart, but they appreciate that he doesn’t flaunt his knowledge.
One last note, Gamadge doesn’t admit he has a yellow cat named Martin. Instead, he refers to the cat as a guest who came to visit and stayed. But Martin often is present in the room when an important discussion occurs.
Detective Henry Gamadge
Gamadge is not your hard-boiled detective. He is the complete opposite. He doesn’t solve crimes based on streets smarts or how to maneuver in the world of criminals. Instead he relies on information found in his books and understanding the nature of the victims and suspects trapped by strict social guidelines. We overlook Gamadge’s lack of detective skills because the plots don’t require guns and brute force but knowledge to solve the puzzle.
Unlike a hired detective he is not the outsider but accepted as a member of the social set. They trust him with information, gossip and even the scandals that require discretion. People may find him kind, but don’t be fooled. He can be ruthless when he needs to trap the villains and bring them to justice.
Daly’s First Book Unexpected Night
While most of her books take place in New York, Henry Gamadge, makes his very first appearance in Unexpected Night at a golf retreat in coastal Maine. When the body of Amberly Cowden is discovered at the base of a cliff, it first appears to be a natural death. Cowden was due a large inheritance if he lives past midnight but his death changes the distribution of the money. This factor causes the police to take a closer look at the case.
As the police start the investigation nothing seems to fit between Cowden’s death and the possible suspects. Gamadge who is on vacation, steps in to help the local police sort the clues as they relate to the inheritance, and a troupe of summer stock actors who start dying off. Soon Gamadge’s logic is on full display as he links the suspects to the clues and solves the case.
The events in this first story represents the complexity of the plots Daly creates in all of her stories.
Is Daly the American Agatha Christie?
If you want to make your own comparison between Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Daly, you can still purchase Daly’s books. Felony and Mayhem Press are reissuing them, and they are available in Kindle editions from Amazon. Take the opportunity to read an Elizabeth Daly mystery and enter the world of Henry Gamadge.