(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the twelve years between the publication of her first novel and the publication of The Painted Face in 1974, Jean Stubbs developed the interests that in retrospect seem naturally to have led her to the genre of the historical mystery thriller. After three realistic works and a utopian novel, she ventured into a combination of history and crime with My Grand Enemy (1967), which tells the story of Mary Blandy, who was hanged in 1752 for poisoning her father and who may well have been merely the tool of the man she loved. Although critics considered that the book had fallen short of high drama, it was praised for its factual accuracy and for its re-creation of the period in which it was set. Although not a conventional mystery and crime writer, Stubbs adjusted the genre to suit her particular interests. Her works have earned wide acclaim for their meticulous historical detail and their imaginative and suspenseful plots.

The Case of Kitty Ogilvie

After a biographical novel about Eleanora Duse, Stubbs once again ventured into the history of crime with The Case of Kitty Ogilvie (1970). In this historical novel, Stubbs proves that Ogilvie was indeed cleverly framed, as the supposed murderess had insisted. Stubbs’s interpretation is supported by Ogilvie’s mysterious escape from prison, which may well have been made possible by respectable friends who knew that she had been wronged but could not prove it. The poignant prison scene in which Ogilvie must bid farewell to her baby, who she senses will not live long in the care of a hired nurse, is one of the most effective pieces of writing that Stubbs has produced. Because by that point in the book she had convinced her readers of Ogilvie’s innocence, it is also clear that here, as perhaps in the Blandy story, Stubbs was beginning to explore her concern with feminine vulnerability.

Dear Laura

The theme of vulnerability emerged again in the gothic novel Dear Laura (1973) set in the nineteenth century. Although the wife in the novel is foolish, she does not deserve a husband so tyrannical or a life so grim. With this work, Stubbs once again proved that she had learned how to handle intense emotion and to maintain suspense until the last page. These skills were to stand her in good stead when she at last turned to historical mysteries, The Painted Face and The Golden Crucible.

The Painted Face

Although it is generally agreed that The Painted Face lacks the depth of The Golden Crucible, the two books share a number of characteristics. In both cases, the setting is the early twentieth century: The Painted Face takes place in 1902, The Golden Crucible in 1906. Furthermore, in both novels the down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes Inspector Lintott is removed from his normal surroundings and forced to solve a mystery in an alien, exotic place. To him, the Paris of The Painted Face is just as exotic as the San Francisco of the Barbary Coast period to which he travels in The Golden Crucible.

Although both books begin with a riddle, only in the first has there been a death, and that is not suspected to have been murder. Twenty years after a railway accident in France, in which his half sister was supposedly killed, a well-to-do English artist wishes to learn more about her fate. The second novel begins with the question of a wealthy American’s motivations in attempting to hire the inspector to trick the famous magician Felix Salvador, but the crucial mystery is the disappearance of the magician’s sister, Alicia, which occurs almost two weeks later. The injury of Bessie Lintott, which follows, is only briefly a mystery; when the inspector is boldly told that it was designed to intimidate him into dropping his inquiries into Alicia’s kidnapping, he acquires a personal reason to follow those responsible—to San Francisco or to the ends of the earth. In both novels, the fact that the victims have been vulnerable females both motivates Lintott to leave his comfortable fireside to take the case and, as far as the structure of the book is concerned, intensifies the suspense inherent in the chase.

If feminine vulnerability is important to the plot, it is also an important theme in both books. The characters can be divided into three groups. First, there are those who are worldly, sophisticated, and corrupt. It is from this group...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)