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February 11, 2015

Felony of the Week: Skeleton Key, by Lenore Glen Offord

Time magazine ran an interesting series of articles marking the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and the one I found most interesting began with the claim that every era gets the conspiracy theory it deserves. Similarly, it’s probably fair to say that every era gets the sort of mystery it deserves, or that suits it best: Think how cozy puzzle-mysteries must have helped distract and soothe a population wracked with anxieties over the social upheavals following World War I, or how the double-dipped cynicism of classic noir fiction spoke to readers racketing from the horrors of World War II to the Technicolor prosperity of the post-war years.

Our preferred protagonists change as well. You’d have a hard time these days selling even one novel about an independently wealthy aristocrat who solves crimes as an intellectual exercise, but Lord Hoo-Ha and the Honorable Whatsit were all the rage in the early 20th century. The loner with a chip on his shoulder, an alcohol problem and a secret sorrow may appear to be a more enduring type, but in truth he’s changed so much that – with some exceptions – I don’t know that Mr. Chandler would recognize him any more. And the same scenario holds true for the ladies. The damsel in distress was once the most popular girl protagonist: Her sole aim was to escape from the baddies’ intent on doing her in. But over time, she developed a desire not just to evade the baddies, but to hit them where they lived. And this desire was accompanied by the ability to throw her own punches, thank you very much.

All of which leads me to Skeleton Key, the first mystery we’re publishing by the estimable Lenore Glen Offord, who wrote several novels, eight of them mysteries, in the 1940s and 50s. (In her spare time, she served as the mystery reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle…for more than 30 years.) What interested me about the books, from the first one I picked up, was the combo of somewhat old-fashioned puzzle-based storytelling and a heroine – war-widow Georgine Wyeth, in Skeleton Key – who feels astonishingly modern. I had many go-rounds with the artist who designed the book’s (ultimately wonderful) cover; I didn’t think he was capturing the look of a woman of 1943. But the truth is, whenever I think of Georgine, the image that comes to my mind is of “Charlie” girl Shelley Hack, striding across the TV screen in a perfect evocation of 1970s-style women’s-lib independence. Georgine doesn’t have a man in her life, and she doesn’t need one: She’s supporting herself and her young daughter just fine. And when the time comes to strap on a sleuthing-hat, she handles that as well. Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing remotely man-hating about either Georgine or Offord’s books in general. But they serve as a dandy reminder that the 1970s did not invent empowered women.

We were so intrigued by that juxtaposition – gutsy babe + old-school clues and puzzles – that we commissioned Sarah Weinman, who has written knowledgeably about the evolution of women in mystery fiction, to write a foreword for Skeleton Key. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is any kind of academic exercise; it’s all about a swell read. But to my mind, thinking about Georgine in the context of the (fictional) women who both preceded her and came after only adds to the enjoyment. We hope you’ll agree, and we’d love to hear from you. In fact, we’d love it so much that right now Skeleton Key is selling for a bony (bonny?) 50% off!

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