Marian Babson Essay - Critical Essays

Ruth Stenstreem


In Marian Babson’s work, murder usually does not initiate the mystery. Instead, the characters, including the children, attempt to regain some order as they suffer from unexpected and unprovoked disruptions to their lives. In A Trail of Ashes (1984; also known as Whiskers and Smoke), Rosemary empathizes with the young as they learn that “life was not the way it was presented on the television screen. When people were cruelly wounded, they did not leap up with a merry laugh after the commercial—they lay there and bled.” Characters in Babson’s mysteries do bleed, if only metaphorically, and they continue to struggle with loneliness.

A Trail of Ashes

Babson frequently provides pets as companions for her disaffected characters. Errol, a Maine coon cat featured in A Trail of Ashes, offers little consolation for the Blakes when they first arrive. He typifies an aggressive, undisciplined society that prides itself on independence. Rosemary explains, “The brute was twice the size of our lovely Esmond; a burly, thick-necked, square-headed animal, given an unexpectedly rakish look by the fact that the tip of one ear had evidently been chewed off in some private dispute of long ago.” Ultimately, assertive Errol and the Blakes establish a rapport, a tribute to newfound friendships.

Portrayal of Children

Babson’s sensitive portrayal of children in crime novels was displayed early in her career. Typically, these children struggle with unsettling disruption in their lives: parental abuse, neglect, or death. In Unfair Exchange (1974), nine-year-old Fanny displays an obnoxious attitude that proves to be a reaction to the neglect by her vivacious yet thoughtless mother, Caroline. Babson captures the dichotomy of Fanny’s character by showing the child seeking comfort by clutching a huge stuffed giraffe she has named for a sports car, Alfa-Romeo. Twinkle, the child star in Murder, Murder, Little Star (1977), appears as arrogant and rude as Fanny. Twinkle’s ineffectual mother accompanies her on the set but offers no real support. Narrator Frances Armitage, hired as Twinkle’s chaperone, recognizes the loneliness of the child and her career concerns. Thought to be ten but really a teenager, Twinkle fears the loss of good parts. Once her life is no longer in jeopardy, Twinkle seems destined for a role suggested by Frances: Lady Jane Grey, the child bride and queen.

The inhabitants of Babson’s world are invariably victims of loneliness and emotional deprivation. Though her stories are not unleavened by wit, the worlds she creates leave her readers with the sense that events are random after all, and that little is worthy of trust.

Perkins and Tate Series

Cover-Up Story (1971), Babson’s first crime novel, relays the exploits of series character Douglas Perkins of the public relations firm Perkins and Tate. Perkins finds himself embroiled in a mystery while representing an American country music troupe led by the tyrannical Black Bart. When one of the performers is injured under suspicious circumstances, Perkins and his partner Gerry Tate must find the murderer while trying to maintain peace among the rest of the troupe’s unusual members. In Murder on Show (1972; also known as Murder at the Cat Show), death calls on Perkins again—this time at a cat show he and partner Tate have been hired to publicize. When a gold cat statue goes missing and the show organizer turns up dead, Perkins must unravel the mystery, while trying to maintain his studied ambivalence toward an endearing kitten clamoring for his attention. In Tourists Are for Trapping (1989), Perkins and Tate investigate the death of an elderly member of an American tourist group, and In the Teeth of Adversity (1990), they help a dentist to the stars deal with the bad press surrounding the death of a top model in his office.

Although the Perkins series novels have been praised for their plotting and characterization, some critics describe them as apprentice novels, in which Babson was able to hone her narrative and comedic style in addition to developing several of her recurrent themes and plot devices such as the centrality of feline characters, quirky plot scenarios, and the way her protagonists stumble unintentionally on mysterious and deadly events.

The Lord Mayor of Death

The Lord Mayor of Death (1977) involves Kitty, a five-year-old who is easier to like than Babson’s other...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)