Friday, August 4, 2017

FFB: The Arrow Points to Murder - Frederica de Laguna

THE STORY: All is not well at the New York Academy of Natural Sciences. The Hall of Mammals is closed for rehabbing and redesign, the sea otter exhibit is moth eaten and in need of a taxidermy repair, one scientist's paper all ready for publication now looks as if it will never see print. The entire staff is on edge, at each other's throats with jealousy and animosity for one reason or another. Then there's the collection of South American artifacts being catalogued and prepared for loan to a foreign museum. Museum director Dr. Oberly insists on reviewing the group before it gets shipped off to Russia. Hours later Oberly is dead, apparently having accidentally cut himself on the arrow blade still tainted with curare. Was it an accident? Oberly was not at all well liked, had made several employees angry or upset, and seems a perfect target for violent revenge. Was the accident a cleverly disguised murder? Dr. Richard Barton turns sleuth and uncovers more secrets than he cared to know about.

THE CHARACTERS: The primary cast of characters is made up of the rather large staff of the Museum. Everyone from security guards to administrative staff to all the scientist are introduced in a whirlwind first chapter, one right after other, and it took many pages for me to keep everyone straight. I made a checklist with character names, their museum affiliations, and field of study and needed to refer back to it frequently before I had finally kept them all straight in my head. That was well past the halfway mark. Once that task was accomplished I was able to sink into the very intriguing plot.

Barton is our hero detective and he is part of the American Studies section of the museum. His knowledge about the South American Goajiro tribe and the methods of making and using arrow poisons is key to uncovering the murder method and in part the killer's motive. He is sure that the murderer unintentionally showed his ignorance of ethnology in choosing the arrow as a murder weapon while the police think it all may be a blind. When another murder related to the arrow collection -- even more bizarre and horrific in its execution -- takes place Barton and the police know for certain that Oberly's death was no accident.

INNOVATIONS: When Doubleday Doran first published de Laguna's book in 1937 part of the publicity for the book claimed that it was "the first fictional presentation of backstage life in a large museum...by an archeologist (sic) who knows and appreciates the color and fascinating detail of that type of work." Like most publishing PR this is slightly exaggerated. There had been a handful of other detective novels published much earlier that also involve museums and even one with an arrow murder in a museum (The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (1917) by Anna Katharine Green), but the claim of the authorial expertise on the academic side of museum work probably holds true as a first in fiction publishing.

The plot makes use of anthropological forensic science and unusual poison experiments in a way like no other detective novel I know of. De Laguna admits frankly in her foreword to the 1999 paperback reprint that she took liberties with the operation of the Medical Examiner's Office in order to make the plot more exciting.

THINGS I LEARNED: The Arrow Points to Murder (1937) is replete with anthropological lectures, cultural tidbits, and tangential scientific trivia all related to museum work. I learned about the importance of entomology in helping to date Egyptian mummies (some species of lice are being studied by one of the staff members). There is considerable background in the "publish or perish" mindset of working in academia and how the continual delay of a manuscript affects the eccentric ethnologist Carstairs, who for much of the book seems to be the most likely suspect as Oberly's killer. And of course I got a crash course in arrow poison sources and the manufacture of those poisons. De Laguna includes a complex recipe for curare which consists of samples of bark from five different species of tree and the roots of two other plants! I discovered that some poisons remain lethal for years even though they appear to have dried on the arrowhead.

Frederica De Laguna
(circa early 1930s)
THE AUTHOR: Frederica de Laguna was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1906, the daughter of two philosophy professors at Bryn Mawr College where she eventually would study politics and economics. She later studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Columbia University which led to a travel expedition focussing on the study of connection between Eskimo and Paleolithic art. She travelled throughout Europe on a fellowship awarded to her from Byrn Mawr and had a variety of ethnological and archeological experiences all culminating in her decision to pursue anthropology as a career. In the early 1930s she held a position at The University of Pennsylvania Museum which provided her with much of the background that shows up in The Arrow Points to Murder. De Laguna founded the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr College where she taught from 1938 to 1972. In 1975, along with Margaret Mead, she was one of the first women to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Her life is rich with fascinating work and you can find out a lot about her from various books and websites. For the most interesting take on her long career visit this informative, often intimate, tribute website.

In addition to her many books on anthropology and ethnology De Laguna wrote two mystery novels, both to offset a period of unemployment during the depression. The Fog on the Mountain (1938) followed The Arrow Points to Murder and is in part based on her expedition to Cook Inlet, Alaska to discover traces of Paleo-Indians and her study of the Athapaskan people.

EASY TO FIND? The Arrow Points to Murder was originally published only in the US by Doubleday Doran's "Crime Club".  There is no UK edition. Copies of the original hardcover are --surprise!-- exceptionally scarce, though I managed to find one in a Half Price Books outlet for a mere $25 only a few months ago. But your chances are better if you look for the 1999 paperback reprint from a one time independent Alaskan operation called Katchemak Country Publications. This indie press also reprinted her second detective novel Fog on the Mountain, another equally scarce mystery book. De Laguna intended to have all of her books, her two novels and all of her non-fiction work, reissued by a publishing enterprise she created herself prior to her death in 2004.  But few of her books have been reprinted according to the website catalog.

12 comments:

  1. I shouldn't say this, but Frederica looks like a sweet poisoner. Her novel intrigues me.

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    1. You are an incorrigible provocateur. Frederica is no longer with us, but if she were I think she'd give you a talking to.

      It's a pretty good mystery. Her life I find to be much more fascinating. I could've written paragraphs about her accomplishments. I've got her other detective novel and hope to read/review it in a couple of months.

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  2. I love murder in a museum. :) Abe Books currently has a couple of the paperbacks cheap, cheap. Too bad I already made my monthly purchase. Maybe if they're still around next month...

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    1. Would you like one for FREE? I have two copies and can easily send you the paperback copy I have.

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    2. Yes my dear, free is the best price for a book. Thank you, John. Hey do you have my new address here in N.C.? Email me:
      yvettecandraw@gmail.com

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  3. You know, reading this review really makes me miss the Rue Morgue Press, because the book sounds like it would fitted in with their reprints of Clyde Clason (e.g. The Man from Tibet).

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  4. Another author to add to my list! We just went to Alaska so I really want to read Fog on the Mountain.

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  5. Sounds pretty good. Will add to my list. Thank you!

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  6. Very very interesting post, John. What a find. That Crime Club cover is lovely.

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    1. Thanks for saying all that, Tracy. It's all true. Discovering this perfect combination of unusual writer and subject matter is what makes me stick with the blog for a few more weeks when all else is telling me to throw in the towel.

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  7. I learn so much from visiting Pretty Sinister John! I hope you never stop writing about these books, even when the rest of us bloggers have passed beyond the vale (hopefully inside a hermetically sealed locked room, of course). Thanks chum.

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  8. Fascinating. An author I've never heard of, but you've got me very interested....

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