Title: Beat Not the Bones
Author: Charlotte Jay
Publisher: Soho Press, 1995 (Originally published 1952.)
Paperback, 219 pages
Genre: Amateur Sleuth
Source: Paperback Swap
First Line: It is said of a young man in a popular song that he has the moon in his pocket. Alfred Jobe had two moons in his.
David Warwick is a distinguished anthropologist living in Marapai on New Guinea. He is in charge of protecting the natives from exploitation. His young wife is in Australia taking care of her invalid father. When Stella is told that her husband has committed suicide, she doesn't believe it and travels to Marapai to investigate for herself.
At first, I wanted to slap Stella silly because she's exactly the type of woman who drives me nuts: "She had come here for comfort and peace, to be helped by her husband's friend, to be looked after, to be guided and directed as she had always been." Stella is a young woman who's been convent-educated-- not because her family is Catholic, but because her father believed that this sort of education would make her more biddable and "womanly". Stella fully believes that she will be able to find the answers to her questions simply because she's young and nice and pretty and has always behaved. Pah.
When Stella finally realizes that she's been lied to by just about everyone in Marapai, she finally develops the beginnings of a spine and takes her impromptu investigation to a different level-- even leaving Marapai for a bit:
Behind them the wharf grew smaller with extraordinary rapidity. With each moment Marapai was more infinitesimal. An hour ago it had been the whole island, now it was almost swallowed up. As they moved towards the long coastline stretching ahead, the land they were seeking reached out to them, hungry and waiting for victims.
Even though I found Stella exasperating for the most part, I did admire her sheer stubbornness. Once she had an idea in her head, she clung to it like a barnacle, and since she was so young and innocent, the men she was trying to deal with went out of their way to avoid scraping her off their keels.
I can see why this book was the winner of the very first Edgar Award for Best Novel. There's an innocent young heroine looking for the truth. There are well-camouflaged bad guys. Several characters have been in the tropics too long, and they've either had nervous breakdowns, or they're right on the verge of them. And they're all in a lush, alien landscape where the weather, the colors-- almost everything around them-- is just more than human senses can take in and protect itself against.
At the beginning, I read this book because it took place in a part of the world I knew very little about. By book's end I knew I'd just finished reading a well-crafted mystery. I'll definitely be looking for Charlotte Jay's other books.