Elizabeth Daly Essay - Critical Essays


After a false start in 1894, Elizabeth Daly began her career as a writer of detective fiction with the publication, in 1940, of Unexpected Night. Set in Maine, Unexpected Night introduces Henry Gamadge, a New York socialite and bibliophile who dabbles in criminal investigation. Fifteen Gamadge adventures followed, resulting in a series of novels that provide nostalgic glimpses of a vanishing era while chilling the reader’s blood with literate stories of sophisticated wickedness.

Daly’s interest in writing detective stories may be traced to her fondness for puzzles and games and to an early appreciation for the works of Wilkie Collins. She was not particularly concerned with the theory of detective fiction. Having devoted the previous thirty or so years of her life to reading, travel, and the production of amateur plays, Daly began to write because she found detective stories fascinating. Like her fictional creation, Henry Gamadge, who repeatedly becomes involved in criminal investigations simply because he loves a mystery and has no job to distract him, Daly wrote because she loved puzzles, enjoyed writing, and had the leisure to indulge herself. As a writer, her only objective appears to have been to baffle and entertain the reader with an ingeniously conceived and well-presented mystery.

Each of the sixteen Gamadge novels is a literate and ingenious exercise in logic that uses an assortment of stock characters as set pieces around which a mystery can be developed. The principal character, Henry Gamadge, is a kind of English gentleman disguised as one of New York’s aristocracy. Slightly resembling Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey—and sometimes displaying a sophistication even greater than Wimsey’s—Gamadge is, nevertheless, not a stereotypical dashing and attractive drawing room detective hero. Daly herself characterized him as “the semi-bookish type, but not pretentious . . . not good-looking, but eye-catching. He represents everything in a man eager to battle the forces of evil.”

Despite Daly’s characterization, the average reader will find Gamadge too sophisticated to be a convincing representative of a man eager to stand up against evil. After a careful search of the series, the reader may come to the conclusion that Gamadge’s involvement with criminal investigations, like Daly’s involvement with detective fiction, reflects his enjoyment of puzzles more than any moral passion.

Unexpected Night

Even though Daly had a rather lofty concept of Gamadge, she was careful to balance her descriptions, avoiding the creation of a kind of otherworldly superhero. Although his powers of detection are extraordinary, Gamadge is not perfect, as Daly makes clear in her initial, and typical, description of him in Unexpected Night:Mr. Henry Gamadge . . . wore clothes of excellent material and cut; but he contrived, by sitting and walking in a careless and lopsided manner, to look presentable in nothing. He screwed his grey tweeds out of shape before he had worn them a week, he screwed his mouth to one side when he smiled, and he screwed his eyes up when he pondered. His eyes were greyish green, his features blunt, and his hair mouse-coloured. People as a rule considered him a well-mannered, restful kind of young man; but if somebody happened to say something unusually outrageous or inane, he was wont to gaze on the speaker in a wondering and somewhat disconcerting manner.

Because Gamadge is independently wealthy, he has the leisure to pursue his...

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