The Frightened Stiff by Kelley Roos (1942)

Everything went wrong for Jeff and Haila Troy the night they moved into their new Greenwich Village apartment. There’s no lock on the door, no blinds on the windows, and the truck with their furniture didn’t show on time. While at a restaurant to kill time, Haila overhears an unsavory character arranging a meeting for night in the basement apartment of 39 Gay Street, their new apartment. When Haila next sees the guy, it’s morning, he’s naked—and dead in their garden. 

Several weeks ago, after I posted a review of the not so great Board Stiff, JJ (from over at The Invisible Event) mentioned that I shouldn’t let that experience put me off “the similarly death-punning title The Frightened Stiff by Kelley Roos.” I’d read the first of Roos books, Made Up to Kill, and enjoyed it. Plus, JJ hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

The puzzle that the Roos created is a good one. The police have a long list of suspects—everyone living in the building—but Jeff is right at the top. For him the obvious, and most interesting, thing to do is solve the case for them. His investigation, with the often-reluctant help of Haila, centers on the tenants of 39 Gay Street the brownstone, and what connection they had to the dead man. And it offers the Roos the opportunity to fill the building with a number of peculiar characters. Haila’s old roommate Anne, who isn’t very welcoming; Anne’s husband Scott, an artist who’s not always where he should be; a suspicious divorcee restaurateur with a very attentive brother; two spinster sisters with strange tastes in décor; a landlord with a shady past, and an art expert who knows nothing about art. 

‘A group of less suspicious looking suspects I have never seen. If this were a cookie-snitching job instead of a murder, I could believe one of them did it.”

There is a sparseness to the narrative that works. While the dialogue is filled with humor that comes in the form of dry, and quite witty, banter, every sentence is structured to move the story forward. And even with the madcap nature of the plot, the Roos are able to create and maintain an atmosphere of unease and tension. There are some very inventive twists and almost everything dovetails in the end. But here’s the thing. While there is one flimsy little clue to the one person that the murderer cannot be, I don’t see how, using any of the information provided anywhere in the story, the murderer can be identified. 

This is not only a very well-done mystery, but a funny and entertaining read as well. A “mystery comedy” without the silly slapstick or farce. This is a “death-punning title” that I very much recommend.

My Judgment – 4.25/5

Prior Rulings – Ben @ The Green Capsule, Mike @ Only Detect, Patrick @ At the Scene of the Crime

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one book that has been made into a movie [A Night To Remember – released by Columbia Pictures 1942]

6 thoughts on “The Frightened Stiff by Kelley Roos (1942)

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this one more. It is probably my favourite story by the Roos. It is interesting to consider how much as readers we are prepared to forgive a writer for, if their writing style/humour/characters etc., compensate for it. I was put in mind of this when I saw your final rating, yet also read this comment you make: “While there is one flimsy little clue to the one person that the murderer cannot be, I don’t see how, using any of the information provided anywhere in the story, the murderer can be identified.” I would have assumed this to be a red flag issue, yet I’m guessing that you found sufficient other pros of the book, for this to not reduce the final rating excessively. I’ve found myself in similar positions with titles, which makes it interesting to see what deficits most reduce a rating vs, positives which most bump up a rating.

    1. That issue was a big one for me. But, since I don’t hold it against an author when I uncover the murderer, it’s really not fair to hold it against one for cheating with the clues either 🤪.

    2. And I should have added—the biggest factor for me when reading a book is the ability of the author to engage me in the story. A good example is Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. With The Innocent Mrs. Duff. I should have hated that book. It’s dark, twisted and depressing—not my idea of entertainment. But Holding pulled me in and I couldn’t put it down. Whereas I just finished reading The Old Battle-Ax, which is also a page turner, but for very different reasons. Then you get to the end and it truly disappoints.

  2. Your point about the killer seems especially valid given that I think I can remember most of this one…but have no recall of who the guilty party turns out to be. However, I’m glad that didn’t ruin the overall experience for you — I love this one, in part for its juggling of mystery and comedy, but also for the chapter where Haila gets trapped in the cellar and you get a real sense of how the mystery genre is beginning to turn to the novel of Suspense rather than the puzzle plot. The Roos(es?) do a great job of managing to meet both sets of expectations — their first three books did this to a greater or lesser extent — and I’m furious that Rue Morgue went down and we never got any more Troy reprints to see how that strand of their writing developed.

    Never say never, of course, but it’s a crying shame to have the source cut off after only four books!

  3. TomCat

    This is one of my all-time favorite mysteries and one of the few comedic mysteries that managed to make me laugh out loud. I’ve made so many people read it back in the days Rue Morgue Press should have paid me commission. You can still find reviews by Ho-Ling Wong and Patrick (At the Scene of the Crime). I remember the plot being a lot stronger than your review suggests with a beautifully piece of dovetail clueing, but really need to reread it. Anyway, glad you liked it.

    1. Oh I loved it too. A really great comedic mysteries are so hard to find, and this one ticked all the boxes for me. And you’re absolutely correct, the mystery plot is fabulous, and everything does dovetail—except for the fact that (unless I’m wrong, and if I am I will gladly say so) you have to be told who the murderer is. Even Patrick, in his post and the comments, says “you can solve just about anything except who X is.”

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