The Stars Spell Death (1939) aka Murder In The Stars by Jonathan Stagge

Dr Hugh Westlake, widowed father of his teenage daughter Dawn, practising doctor of Kenmore, is in for the shock of his life when he is called to the scene of a car crash. For the body of the man in the crash is wearing Westlake’s clothes, holding Westlake’s ID – even having the morning post from Westlake’s house in his possession.

Before he, and his friend Inspector Cobb, can investigate properly, he is thrown headlong into events surrounding his nephew Robin Barker, the intrigue surrounding his job as a cutting-edge industrial chemist – and the horoscope that he is to receive on his upcoming 21st birthday. If, that is, he reaches that milestone, as that very horoscope predicts the death of Robin and his closest male relative (i.e. Dr Westlake) within a month of that very event…

Jonathan Stagge was another pseudonym of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler aka Patrick Quentin aka Q Patrick, an author who I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of. When I realised that this book on my shelf was from the same author as the Peter Duluth mysteries, I grabbed it off the shelf for my holiday reading.

It’s a pretty valuable and rare book – you’re looking at fifty quid for a copy of it on Abebooks. I was lucky to get it for a pittance (or possibly the seller was unlucky to sell it for a pittance) but I’m really glad that this occurred. Not that I’m a skinflint, far from it, but I’d hated to have paid a lot for this. Because unlike the Peter Duluth mysteries, it isn’t particular good…

Rather than a murder mystery, this is a thriller concerning the search for a formula for a poison that will aid the opposition in the “upcoming” war – it’s set in the US in 1940. And that’s not really my sort of thing.

The prose is perfectly readable, but the plot hinges on which of the people suddenly appearing in the small town are goodies and which are baddies – and if Inspector Cobb had been more forthcoming, one of those questions would have saved some grief.

There are some ideas here that are sort-of clever, but by the time they appear, I was getting bored. There’s some after the fact revelations that basically summoned a “so what?” response from this reader, and, unless I missed something by mentally dozing off, one early incident in the book is never convincingly explained at all. And the idea of tying in everything to the Zodiac is really half-hearted and it seems that at times the author has forgotten about it completely.

Oh, and Westlake’s habit of calling his daughter “Brat!” in an affectionate way – a daughter who is old enough to drive but comes across as about twelve in all of her behaviour – is really irritating.

So all in all, this was the most disappointing read I’ve come across in a long time. Has anyone else read it who wants to come to its defence?

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHO – A Doctor

14 comments

  1. You might have liked it more had you paid £50 … 😉

    I have read only one Stagge, Death’s Old Sweet Song. I liked it quite well. It is another nursery rhyme string of murders thing,with some good detection. Not overly difficult but a fun, smooth, read.

    I am halfway through the 6th Duluth, Puzzle For Pilgrims. So far it’s a corker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, Pilgrims is an excellent book but a very, very strange one. Mostly it’s a novel about a small group of people in an emotionally fraught pressure cooker. Ford Madox Ford writes a murder mystery. I liked it a lot (but I suspect you will not).

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  2. Wait, what? Where do you get that Dawn Westlake is 18+ years old? She’s twelve in this book (it’s stated outright on one of the first pages in chapter one), just like you assumed her to be from her behaviour (which kinda sorta suggests that Stagge managed well with her characterisation).

    Not that I’m overly fond of her character anyway, but at least that shouldn’t be a reason to be annoyed with this one.

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      • Where does it say that Dawn owns the car? She simply wants daddy to buy a new one, not own one herself.

        Yeah, sure, the fact that the salesmen let a twelve-year-old drive the cars they come to show off is a bit far-fetched, but I can’t see any place in the text in the first chapter where Dawn is the one who wants to own the car. I don’t exactly remember how the car-buying exercise turns out in the end, but surely Dawn is never the one who owns the car?

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      • Sorry, must have misread that – I was convinced she wanted the car for herself, which I presumed meant she wanted to drive it. Thinking about it, I see the misunderstanding.

        My incompetence on Dawn aside, what did you think of the rest of the book?

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  3. It’s been a while since I read it during my re-read, so I don’t remember it all that well, but I recall that generally I rated the Stagge novels lower than I’d done previously. I agree with you that they are less GA than some of the other novels that were published under other pseudonyms (particularly the early Q. Patricks and the first few with Peter Duluth).

    Dawn is an annoying character and I’d never recommend anyone to read all Stagges in one go, she’d kill the mood completely. But they generally zip along quite nicely, as adventure thrillers often do, so I wouldn’t tell anyone to avoid them either.

    Generally, I think I like the stories better where Webb had more of a hand involved than those that Wheeler were the main (or only) force behind. Which means that the novels up to the late 30s are the ones I’d recommend before the later ones.

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