The Devil Met a Lady

Organizational problems resulting from the appearance of too many celebrities marred the early Peters mysteries. In THE MELTING CLOCK (1992), however, Kaminsky featured only Salvador Dali. That novel revealed a tight structure built around three riddles that Toby had to solve. By attempting less in that book, Kaminsky succeeded more fully.

The same can be said about THE DEVIL MET A LADY. Its action takes place in February of 1943 and uses Bette Davis quite well as a celebrity whose husband, aircraft designer Arthur Farnsworth, is being blackmailed into turning over defense secrets to Nazi sympathizers. This time the plot is also patterned in a three-part structure, around the repeated attempts to kidnap Davis and thereby exert more pressure on Farnsworth. Kaminsky creates some effective scenes at the Hollywood Canteen, at a poetry reading, at a bakery that specializes in cookies named after film stars, and at the Hollywood Bowl.

Details cohere beautifully, showing the work of a practiced hand. The shiny, metallic case of mah-jong tiles that Toby acquires early in the story, for example, lends credibility to his later masquerade as an electrician and lets him slip past the marines at the door of the servicemen-only Hollywood Canteen. There is not a bad scene in the book.

The Toby Peters series offers more strengths than just period details. Kaminsky supplies a good bit of verbal humor in the clever dialogue and in Toby’s wry observations about his down-at-luck life. Readers who have stayed with narrator-hero Toby over the course of all the novels and who have gotten to know the many likable supporting characters will appreciate the scene where Bette Davis visits Toby’s sister-in-law in the hospital. It provides a poignant touch that could have come from one of Davis’ “women’s pictures” of the 1940’s, and it shows Kaminsky using his celebrity guest star as effectively as ever.