The death of Van Damm at first seems to be the result of a simple burglary: He was evidently shot by an intruder who escaped with only a vaguely-described piece of costume jewelry. Cooley comes to town with his wife, Ellen, to attend the funeral of his friend but ends up defending the man accused of the murder. Manuel, a household employee, was identified by Van Damm’s wife, Sophie, as running from the house immediately after the murder, but Cooley quickly pokes holes in the police lieutenant’s notion that the arrest of Manuel solves the crime.
As is often the case in modern mysteries, investigation tends first to complicate rather than simplify the understanding of the crime. Sophie is a bereaved widow but is also a shifty and coy actress off as well as on stage, and Cooley is suspicious of her statements about her relationship with her husband and with Manuel. It takes all Cooley’s wit and intelligence to resist Sophie’s beguiling explanations, which are filled with lies, strategic revelations, and dramatic gestures. Sophie’s daughter, Irene, shares many of her mother’s qualities and her relationship with Manuel is also something Cooley must fathom.
The central mystery, though, revolves around the object that was stolen, and here is where Cooley’s classical knowledge helps him the most. Without tracing key passages in Homer and the works of Heinrich Schliemann, the nineteenth century discoverer of ancient Troy, Cooley would not have been able to identify the piece of jewelry taken from Van Damm with a fabled classical artifact, invaluable as an archaeological find that would crown Van Damm’s scholarly career and worth enough in other ways to cause his death.
A CUP OF DEATH is talky, filled with long scenes in which Cooley penetrates the foolish conclusions of the police or the lies of the various suspects. It is, however, these analytic and intelligent scenes--including several with his witty wife and confidante-- that account for the great charm of the book. Even the rather formulaic gathering of all the suspects at the end, confronted by the investigator and his wife like a modern-day Nick and Nora Charles reasoning their way to the truth, is captivating rather than stale. One can hope that Dade and Ellen Cooley will, like the Charleses, amble their way through new adventures as entertaining as A CUP OF DEATH.