The Clue of the Judas Tree | 20 Books of Summer

The 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge was created and is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. You can find my full TBR here, and keep reading for my spoiler-free thoughts on The Clue of the Judas Tree by Leslie Ford (a pseudonym used, in addition to David Frome and Brenda Conrad, by writer Zenith Jones Brown).

The Clue of the Judas Tree | Leslie Ford | Book Cover

Content Warning: Racist language, sexism, violent on-page suicide, murder, psychological stigmas


The Clue of the Judas Tree
Leslie Ford

SYNOPSIS:

IN THE MANSION OF MURDER…

A self-made millionaire, whose true story was not fit to print…

His beautiful “friend”…

His wife, and her friend, a very suspect psychiatrist…

And a man from the haunted past, with his father’s blood on his hands, and every reason in the world to kill and kill again…

THOUGHTS/DISCUSSION:

My disappointment with The Clue of the Judas Tree is in itself, disappointing. I had Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart in mind when starting the book, but as I reached the halfway point and continued on, my indifference and distaste for the story grew. I am actually more charmed by the particular edition I read than the fictional contents of it, so I want to quickly talk about that first.

The edition I have (thanks entirely to Michelle from The Green Hand Bookshop) is a Dell Mapback, a vintage paperback that is identifiable by an eye-in-keyhole logo on the front cover, and a map depicting an important-to-the-story setting on the back cover. Over 500 titles were published in this series, and the majority of them fit within the mystery genre. The first double-sided page in The Clue of the Judas Tree (situated before the title page) features “Persons this Mystery is about” (clever and superficial character descriptions) and:

Things this Mystery is about—

A plain brown-paper wrapped PARCEL…
Queen Elizabeth’s BED…
Several CIGARETTE stubs…
A calf-bound copy of Balzac’s DROLL STORIES…
A fallen SPEAR…
Three suits of ARMOR…
A length of ROPE…
Some crushed flowers from the JUDAS TREE…
A buried GUN…
A blood stained DRESSING GOWN…

I found this to be a charismatic way to introduce the reader to the book, although this is not to say all Dell Mapbacks begin this way – I do not know. I really wish I could dedicate this post to my new obsession with the history of Dell Mapbacks, especially since I just spent nearly an hour reading up on these editions, but alas, I’m really just putting off not recommending this book, so I will refrain and instead just link up what I discovered:

And a final charming aspect: the Judas Tree. Its appearance is charming, anyway. You can learn about the mythical origin of this nickname here (if you don’t already know); these trees are more commonly known as “redbuds” and are quite pretty in bloom. I say this based on photos – there are a number of varieties in southern Europe, western Asia, and across the United States, although I’m not sure I’ve seen one in person (a relative, the dogwood tree, is more common in my eastern U.S. neck of the woods). As with the mapbacks, I could go on and on about the things that I learned about the Judas Tree, but I will not.

The Clue of the Judas Tree begins with our protagonist and narrator, journalist Louise Cather, leaving her boss’ office with an assignment to write an autobiography for Mr. Duncan Trent, a somewhat genial millionaire who up to this point in his life, has avoided this type of publicity. Louise literally bumps into another character of the story, Dr. Victor Paul Sartoris (a psychologist), with whom she ends up sharing the train ride to the Trent Estate (Ivy Hill). The banter between Louise and Dr. Sartoris (as he is called for the majority of the book) is delightful; our narrator seemed quick-witted, clever, and sort of downplays her sarcasm with questions and an air of indifference.

“In short, Miss Cather, he’s an officer and a gentleman, and I predict you’ll fall in love with him before you’ve been at Ivy Hill a week.”
“That’s something to look forward to, anyway,” I said. “Who else is there?”

[Most of] the dialogue throughout the book and Louise’s internal monologues are my favorite parts; it’s like they were written to drive up suspicions and anticipation in the reader. It always feels like characters are not saying everything they want to (on purpose), and as such many of Louise’s considerations and “I wish I had known what I know now” reflections sort of reminded me of Catherine Morland’s imaginative, changing, and suspicious thoughts in Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Although nothing about The Clue of the Judas Tree is satirical, it does contain slight Gothic literary elements like foreboding, horror, and romance.

As for the rest of the book: the plot is a bit drab, and that says a lot for a story plot with three murders and a creepily decorated mansion. After the third I even considered (hoped for?) a twist a la And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, but due to the fact that it occurred closer to the end of the book (not enough pages left for more murders) I threw out that consideration. In fact, by the time the murderer was exposed, I was ready to be finished. Boredom was my reaction to learning the murderer’s identity – and while the “clue of the Judas Tree” was made clear, by the time it was I had already become indifferent to most of the characters.

This indifference, and ultimately distaste, was not just fueled by the dullness of the plot, but also the use of several ethnic slurs and discriminatory stereotypes. One character in particular – a police detective – used both in almost each of the few conversations he had in the book, and while he was disliked by nearly every character, his part in the narrative was not necessary except to add a little more conflict to the mystery; time would have been better spent further developing other elements of and conflicts related to the mystery than including the racist language. Even the rough-around-the-edges “heroic” Lieutenant/special detective Kelly had a condescending attitude towards Louise, noting that her red hair probably contributed to her slightly flighty, inquisitive-almost-to-a-fault persona, and demanding she type up his notes for her at every juncture of the mystery.

So overall, I don’t recommend this book. I’ve read reviews of it that state this is not anywhere near Leslie Ford’s best work (Zenith Jones Brown), so I may give one of her other books a go in the future, maybe not. If you can recommend one of her other books, or a different classic mystery author I might enjoy more, let me know in the comments.

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