|Zelda Popkin, from|
Open Every Door
—Zelda Popkin, Murder in the Mist 143
As May is Jewish American Heritage Month, I chose for this week's forgotten books Murder in the Mist by Zelda Popkin, daughter of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, who wrote in her autobiography, "I have found being a Jew attractive and interesting" (26).
New York department store detectives Mary Carner and Christopher Whittaker are on their honeymoon when they check into a Massachusetts tourist hotel and find the body of an artist's model. The model's small daughter insists a witch killed her mother; Mary is more interested in word of a spurned lover; a jealous wife; and a new, younger boyfriend. Surrounded by self-centered artists, oddball guests, and gossipy staff, Mary and Chris piece together the story of a sad life, with Mary stating "I see murder as a struggle for possession" (234).
Mary has no problem dressing down an incompetent chief of police but regards her own detecting talents modestly: "My severest critics tell me that I just sit and wait for clues to drop into my lap. They feel I should go chasing around like Perry Mason or pontificate about little gray cells like Monsieur Poirot. But I'm not a story-book detective. I'm a thief spotter" (232). The lively prose (Chris has a tendency to say "God damn" and provides a hilarious commentary on art appreciation in one scene), a well-constructed puzzle, and keen insight into character keep the reader turning the pages.
The remarkable Zelda Popkin (1898–1983) was the first female general assignment reporter for the Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader at age 16. She wrote a standalone, So Much Blood (1944), and five mysteries with Mary Carner: Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938), Time Off for Murder (1940), Murder in the Mist (1940), Dead Man's Gift (1941), and No Crime for a Lady (1942). Popkin's A Death of Innocence (1971) was adapted as a CBS TV movie in 1971 and starred Shelley Winters as the mother of a murder suspect. Her best-known books are probably The Journey Home (1945), about a serviceman returning from World War II, and Small Victory (1947), one of the earliest U.S. novels dealing with the Holocaust. She assisted in rescuing Jews from the Nazis, worked for the Red Cross in occupied Germany, witnessed the desperate plight of displaced persons, and reported that a food parcel was given to the wife of the ill dancer Nijinsky. Quiet Street (1951) reflects her visit to the strife-torn Holy Land where her sister lived.