If you like mysteries with a touch of broad humor, Fedora Amis’ novel set in St. Louis may be for you.
The plot involes Jemima “Jemmy” McBustle, a struggling reporter for the St. Louis Illuminator, who is sent to cover a play at a theater where Frank James (of the infamous James Gang) is living out his days taking tickets.
The body of a man — a boxer and an actor — Quisenberry Sproat is discovered in the theater. His back has been lacerated: “Pink-red diagonal slashes ran across his white shirt in a random pattern.”
What made those slashes: A bull whip? A knife? A sword?
We don’t know. This question drives the plot of “Have Your Ticket Punched by Frank James.”
Jemmy is determined to find out who killed the man, why and in what way. She hasn’t had a Page One story in a month.
With the story set in Victorian St. Louis, we read references to Mary Institute, Boatmen’s Bank, Barr Department Store and “Brown and International Shoe manufactories right here in St. Louis.”
Even sledding on what becomes Art Hill comprises one scene using “sleds and dishpans,” but this is several years before the St. Louis Art Museum moves into a grand building left by the 1904 World’s Fair.
And as the author notes, in about 1898 James did work at St. Louis’ Standard Theater at Seventh and Walnut streets, although his role in this mystery is rather small.
Amis does a good job evoking the era in her novel. Jemmy travels from one house to another by trolley, sometimes changing lines several times. Heat in well-off homes comes from fireplaces and stoves. Maids with little education answer the doors and bring tea and cakes to visitors. Many are the details of upper-middle-class St. Louis.
Like any good detective, Jemmy follows her instincts and runs down leads, confronting possible suspects in the murder of QB, as the dead man is sometimes known.
She encounters Dr. Delmadge Wangermeier, the acting St. Louis coroner; her cousin and several suspects, including John Folck; Deke Whicher, Sproat’s trainer; Tony van Phul; and “a young scoundrel around town named Peter Ploog.”
We gain sometimes humorous insights into Victorian mores and the role, for instance, that chaperones played when young women of some standing in the city’s social circles went out alone. One such chaperone is Miss Turaluralura Snodderly, who would insist of “punctilious propriety” by her proper charges.
It took me a while to find my way in this mystery because of the writing style, which evokes the wordiness of earlier times. (I’m more a fan of the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett or Henning Mankell.) But readers who like gags, characters with punny names and a touch of long-ago St. Louis may enjoy this book.
Repps Hudson is a St. Louis writer.