Patrick Quentin, best known for the Peter Duluth puzzle mysteries, also penned outstanding detective novels from the 1930s through the 1960s under other pseudonyms, including Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge. Anthony Boucher wrote: “Quentin is particularly noted for the enviable polish and grace which make him one of the leading American fabricants of the murderous comedy of manners; but this surface smoothness conceals intricate and meticulous plot construction as faultless as that of Agatha Christie.”
Lewis Denham has always been the black sheep of the family. Adopted into the “proper” Denham household after his working-class parents died, Lew never quite fit in with the rest of the clan—or maybe he simply couldn’t keep his nose elevated that high for that long without getting frostbite.
Either way, when he announces his marriage to a British girl without checking how blue her blood is, the family is aghast. But things become truly appalling when Lew finds a dead man in his apartment—and it seems the lower-class victim had a connection with his upper-crust family.
Now, feeling more outside the Denham ranks than ever, Lew will have to look past his family’s elite façade and find out who they really are. And he’s about to learn that none of them are too good to get a little blood on their hands . . .
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When I walked into the restaurant, there they were — the three of them. Aunt Peggy was not with them, but then I hadn't really expected her. They were sitting at a corner table, handsome, sublimely at ease in the assumption that any restaurant anywhere would be privileged to serve them.
Although I hadn't seen them for almost six weeks, there was no commotion at my arrival. The Denhams, with their distinguished heritage of bankers, bishops, career diplomats and yet again bankers, were far too "civilised" to demonstrate affection. Uncle Gene, who was studying the menu, lowered it a fraction to smile over its broad gilt edge. My cousin Hugo glanced fussily at his watch to remind me that I, their host, was five? six? (he would know) minutes late. Tanya, his wife, who didn't have many expressions, looked beautiful and placid. She put her hand on my sleeve and said, "Well, Lew, at least you've got a suntan."
Then Uncle Gene said, as I'd known he would, "I'm afraid your aunt is a little seedy, Lewis. Nothing serious. Just a slight chill. But she sends her love."
They knew, of course, that I had something important to tell them. I had hinted as much on the phone when I'd invited them to lunch. But it was equally obvious that they had sensed it was something they didn't want to hear and so they were pretending the invitation had been purely social, just to make it more difficult for me.
That was typical of them.
Waiters were hovering like fruit flies. There was something about the Denhams that actually made New York waiters wait. The others had already got their drinks — Uncle Gene a Chamberry because he believed that hard liquor blasted the taste buds; Hugo, imitating him, or going one better, a tomato juice. Tanya was twisting the stem of a champagne cocktail. Now that she had become more American than Bethlehem Steel, her weakness for sweet champagne was one of the few reminders that she was in reality a White Russian princess or, as Hugo with magnificently inverted snobbery preferred to put it, a Displaced Person.
As I ordered a vodka martini, I felt, as always with the Denhams, a faint, unfocused sensation of social maladroitness, as if I had not ordered the drink with the right air of authority or as if, when it came, I might perhaps smile too friendlily at the waiter. Although Uncle Gene and Aunt Peggy, when they'd adopted me, had given me every advantage they had given Hugo, somehow none of them had ever let me quite forget that I was, after all, only a courtesy Denham, the son of that unfortunate cousin who had gone into Insurance and further undistinguished himself by dying with his ex-librarian wife in an Indiana bus accident.
My martini came. Hugo said, "Bad habit that. Martinis before lunch. A Madison Avenue habit."
He glanced down at his stomach, indicating it seemed, that its leanness dissociated him from anything so vulgar as Madison Avenue. Exasperation overtook me. Why did I always let them intimidate me into playing it their way? Why couldn't I just blurt out the truth and let the pained foreheads knit? I knew, of course, that this was merely self-indulgence. The memory of Beth was sacred to the Denhams. They, almost more than I, had picked her for my wife, and she had represented everything that a Denham consort should be — particularly for a Denham whose social status needed a little extra lustre. The fact that I was betraying Beth's memory after a mere fifteen months of mourning was a confession only to be made piecemeal.
Uncle Gene was ordering the food and wine for all of us, a habit which always irritated me, particularly when I was the host. Once the ritual was over, his noble lion's face relaxed, giving the signal that general conversation could begin. Not my "news," of course. It was a Denham axiom that nothing controversial should be discussed while eating.
"I trust your business trip was successful, Lewis," he said, not wanting to hear.
"Yes," I said. "They start building the hotel next month."
"I understand Puerta Vallarta is quite impossible these days," said Tanya. "Such a crowd."
"I hope you got in some fishing," said Hugo suspiciously. "I hope you didn't just spend your free time bumming around the bars with that movie riff-raff."
And so it went on through the saumon fumé and the salmi of duck, and all the time I was thinking of Virginia, of my fantastic luck in meeting her, of the astonishing excitement of our ten enraptured days together, and of the impulsive, almost unpremeditated marriage ceremony in the little Justice of the Peace's office with the bougainvillaea bobbing against the window.
"I do hope there'll be something amusing to do when Grandma and Grandpa come," Tanya was saying. Grandma and Grandpa were the Prince and Princess Lerchikov, due to arrive that evening from Lausanne.
"To bad it's too early for sailing," said Uncle Gene. "Maybe we should fly them down to Antigua for the week-end." Uncle Gene had a house on Antigua ... as indeed did all the Denham cronies. Antigua was an okay island. "We'll see how they feel when they get here."
I heard the words, but they merely floated across my thoughts of Virginia as I had left her that morning in my bed, deliciously warm to the touch, only half awake but more than ready, though amused, to take my dilemma seriously. Darling, you handle them your way, of course. If you think the marriage should be our guilty secret for a while, why not? I can do that British fiancée bit to a fare-thee-well. I'll even marry you again if necessary in whatever cathedral the Denhams may own, with a veil and little boys, of course, throwing flowers about. In fact, I'd rather enjoy it. Marrying you could become one of my favourite pursuits.
It was only after the Grand Marnier soufflé that I made my announcement. By then, I think, in spite of themselves, their curiosity had got the better of their wariness, because Uncle Gene actually gave me an opening.
"Well, Lewis ..." he said.
And I told them.
Hugo's reaction was the most aggressive. He put his cognac glass down, looking in his shocked astonishment like a devout choirboy who'd been offered bubble gum during the Athan-asian Creed.
"What? Some girl in Puerta Vallarta?"
Tanya's chameleon face had instantly duplicated his expression. Uncle Gene, always less transparent, had slipped beind a mask of quizzical non- commitment.
"Don't jump in, Hugo. Let your cousin explain."
"There's nothing to explain," I said. "I met her. We fell in love. She's come back with me. I hope you like her and I hope she likes you."
It was from Tanya, who could still at times be Slavic and emotional, that the explosion came. But Uncle Gene's and Hugo's silence was far more intimidating. They both sat looking, as in a freak show, at a creature who only fifteen months after the tragic drowning of a model wife personally endorsed by themselves, could have "fallen in love" with "some girl" from, of all places, Puerta Vallarta.
"She's here?" asked Hugo eventually. "In New York City?"
"At the apartment." I'd anticipated that question and added untruthfully for their sakes, "I've moved to a hotel."
"But who is she?" asked Tanya.
"Not a Mexican?" blurted Hugo, indicating that there was no folly of which he did not now believe me capable.
"As it happens, no," I said. "She's British."
"British!" echoed Uncle Gene hopefully. He was a great Anglophile. None of the Denhams, in fact, had ever entirely accepted the American Revolution. "Then perhaps we know her? Or rather, of her?"
"I doubt it," I said. "She was running the Gift Shop in the Posada del Mar. Selling sweaters mostly. People don't realise it gets cold at night down there. Sweaters sell well."
"But where is she from in England?" said Tanya.
"I haven't asked her. Her name's Virginia Harwood."
"Harwood, Harwood," murmured Uncle Gene, whose memory was a vast pigeonholed desk of okay names from South Carolina to Derbyshire.
Hugo picked up his cognac and gulped, forgetting to savour its bouquet first. "But you're not contemplating ... That is, there's no possibility that you'll marry this girl?"
"Would I have mentioned her otherwise?" I said.
I knew then that I had been right to go that far and no farther, for the silence that followed was as deep and ominous as the silence in a wrecked ship on the sea bottom. And when they spoke again, it was with a crippling politeness. They were sure, said Hugo, that I was not planning anything rash. No doubt, offered Uncle Gene, when the moment was suitable they'd be permitted to meet this Miss Harwood. And then — totally in character — they changed the subject as if it had never been broached. Uncle Gene started to discuss an offer he'd received to head a financial fact-finding commission in Washington. Tanya remarked that she must remember to order flowers to be sent to the Pierre for Grandma and Grandpa. And Hugo, glowering at his immaculate nails, announced that he had a stiff afternoon ahead of him with the SEC implying that the sooner we got the hell out of the restaurant the better.
I knew what they were up to, of course. The blow had been so stunning by their standards that they were backing away to recover strength before launching their counter-attack to "save Lew from himself". All they hoped for at the moment was to freeze what they believed to be the status quo. Uncle Gene gave it away after I'd paid and Hugo was being helped by the hat- check girl into a Burberry topcoat which, I noticed in mild surprise, was identical with my own although somewhat darker and therefore, of course, that much more correctly Denham.
"By the way, Lewis," said Uncle Gene, "you're not going to mention this Miss Harwood to your Aunt Peggy, are you? I'm sure you realise how it would affect her, feeling the way she felt about Beth."
There in a nutshell was everything that made the Denhams what they were. That Aunt Peggy had been fond of Beth was as imaginary as the legend of her slight chills. Aunt Peggy had been an alcoholic for years. In her private, self- obsessed hell, Beth had been as meaningless to her as any other human being, as myself, for example, or her own son.
But those were not matters which Denhams admitted, even within their own Inner Sanctum. When Denham reality didn't match up to the Denham ideal of "civilised" behaviour, then reality was ignored.
As I hurried back to my architect's office along a Fifth Avenue unseasonably mild for April, I thought of Aunt Peggy lying now in her pink, ruffled, twilit bedroom with the gin bottle hidden, but not really hidden, in some all-too-familiar secret place. It suddenly occurred to me that once they found out I was irretrievably married to "some little English girl he picked up in Mexico," Virginia might become for my family just such another reality to be ignored. For the first time, in spite of my real affection for them, I felt furiously angry with them, and the uncomplicated happiness which in Puerta Vallarta seemed to have come my way became for the first time tarnished.
This was my first day back at the office, work had piled up and Miss Lindsay was in and out with this and that. Mary Lindsay had been with me for three years. Since Beth's death, she had become more friend than secretary. I knew I'd have to break the news to her, too, but after my experience at lunch, I dreaded another "reaction". I decided it could be postponed until tomorrow. The moment I had a breathing space, I called Virginia.
"Well, darling," she said, "how was the ordeal?"
"About what I expected."
"Are we wed or unwed?"
"Neither at the moment."
"How divine! It's like marrying into the Royal Family, isn't it? I do feel awful about never having heard of the Denhams."
"Nobody has — except the Denhams and three other people."
"When do I meet them?"
"Whenever you feel like it."
"Oh dear, they'll think I'm a brazen adventuress, won't they?"
"Not once they've seen you."
"Won't they? I've always thought I looked rather like a brazen adventuress. Oh well, I'll try to subdue myself. What shall I be? A dean's daughter? That's always rather good, I think. And under the circumstances, it's about as near as I dare get to a princess."
"Baby, I'm so sorry about this. I know it's ridiculous. But — well, they are my family."
"But of course, my angel. And don't worry. I'll charm them right out of their spats. Before I'm through with them, they'll be begging me to marry you on their knees with tears in their eyes." Her voice suddenly changed. "But — but if they don't like me ..."
"But if they don't, if I revolt them, there isn't anything ... I mean, they wouldn't try to do anything, would they?"
"What could they do?" I asked, not at all sure that they were above trying.
She laughed. "Nothing, I suppose, except shoot me with that revolver I've just found in the drawer by the bed."
"It would be quite a suitable weapon," I said. "Uncle Gene gave it to Beth to defend her from housebreakers."
That was too frivolous a remark for a Denham to make and I was Denham enough to feel rather ashamed of myself. But Virginia only laughed again, her spirits completely restored.
"My poor dear, don't be depressed. Respectability will triumph. In the meantime, since we're virtually living in sin, let's do something unspeakably vulgar tonight — some sordid nightclub with B girls. We might as well wallow in the gutter if that's where we belong."
Just having talked to her made the functional office seem gay as a tropical beach. That's how much in love we were. We? Did I have any right to say "we"? Superstition stirred.
Well, then, "I".
It was just after midnight when we arrived at the Club Marocain. Virginia had picked it because it advertised Esmeralda, Genuine Stomach Dancer from the Soukhs of Meknes, which she found promising. The dump wasn't, she assured me, her idea of a genuine den of vice with B girls, but to my relatively inexperienced Denham eye, it was pleasantly sordid enough. The small tables were jammed together in candlelit gloom while a spotlight beat torridly down on Esmeralda, a bikini-ed brunette who, accompanied by an invisible and disappointingly occidental trio, was wriggling her way through a pseudo- Arabian sex song.
We sat in a corner remote from the stage, holding hands. We had done nothing remarkable — dinner, the theatre — but the evening had been marvellous. Dimly, every now and then, as I glanced at Virginia's amused profile and the smooth suntanned curve of her throat thrusting up from the primrose-yellow dress we'd bought together at truly ridiculous expense, I had found myself trying to remember what Beth and I had done with our days. Had we ever bought a dress together? I couldn't visualise it at all. Her sensible simple little black numbers and the aristocratic tweeds seemed to have reduplicated themselves immaculately like amoebas in her neat closets, as did the innumerable pairs of gloves which she always wore in the city to hide the freckles on her wrists of which she had been unaccountably embarrassed. Had Beth and I ever been on the town? I imagined so. We couldn't have spent every evening at home in domestic doldrums with her snapping little Dandy Dinmont. But now my whole life before Virginia seemed as remote as the Ancient Britons.
"Darling, if I were a lovely Arabian-type stomach dancer, I'd keep my navel clean, wouldn't you?"
Virginia turned to me, her lashes velvet-black in the candle-light. I kissed her. For a moment her lips were warm against mine, then she turned back, fascinated, to the stage.
"Oh, Lew, do look. She's got the beads in her mouth again. This place is absolutely divine. We must stay to the bitter end."
The song concluded in a heroic swaying of thighs. The brunette bowed to the spatter of applause. A man, presumably the leader of the trio, appeared from behind the curtains and bowed with her. He was rather remarkable- looking, with bright red hair, huge fists and the heavy sculpted face of a minor Roman emperor. There was the sound of voices and people approaching us. Virginia pulled her hand out of mine with an abruptness that faintly startled me. I looked at her but she was merely applauding vigorously. I started to applaud too. The lights came up. A waiter, muttering apologies, pushed past me to usher the new arrivals to the empty table next to ours. Still clapping, I glanced at them. The woman glanced at me.
"Well," she said.
"Hello," I said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Family Skeletons"
Copyright © 1965 Patrick Quentin.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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