Uncommon Mystery: Ask Miss Mott

Nov 11, 2013

Mystery enthusiast Michael Cohen reviews an "uncommon mystery" to consider for your reading list. The mystery "Ask Miss Mott" by E. Phillips Oppenheim is a thriller published in 1935, an early adventure spy novel.

E. Phillips Oppenheim, Ask Miss Mott (1935)

Junking around in a thrift shop recently I found an intriguing book from 1935 titled Ask Miss Mott, by E. Phillips Oppenheim. I knew Oppenheim’s name from The Great Impersonation and other titles, implausible adventure books usually with amateurs who get forced into spy-type situations—sort of a combination of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men, though The Great Impersonation has a little bit of The Prisoner of Zenda in it, too. In fact, Oppenheim is often credited with inventing the spy novel, and also writing the first “rogue male” story, before Geoffrey Household’s book of that name, and beginning an adventure subgenre whose most recent manifestations include the Rambo stories.

The crime-solver and adventurer in Ask Miss Mott is a woman, and her day job is as the Miss Lonelyhearts of a London magazine. Those of you who never missed an Ann Landers or a Dear Abby column may be intrigued by an advice column writer who runs her own inquiry agency. Lucie Mott ends up attracting the notice of England’s Number One gangster, a scarfaced villain who falls for Lucie and repeatedly kidnaps her. Since it’s 1935, there’s a good deal of romantic silliness in the book, and Lucie has to be rescued several times by her uncle, who’s a Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent, and by a mysterious quasi-gangster known as Violet Joe. But Lucie does pretty well on her own, too. She shoots up a gang hideout with the tiny pistol she carries, saving her uncle’s life in the process. She gets away from the Number One bad guy on her own at least twice, once by leaping from a speedboat into the Thames at Greenwich, and a second time by simply outsmarting her abductor. And she solves one case—a missing wife—without any help, and in another she gives her uncle the evidence to convict a burglar who is also a murderer.

The book is composed of ten different cases or adventures which were published separately in Collier’s magazine in 1935 and then collected in book form before the end of the year. The episodes are self-contained but also form a continuous story with a predictable happy ending for Miss Mott and Violet Joe. More than a quaint period piece, Ask Miss Mott is funny and well-written. Oppenheim wrote over a hundred novels and many collections of short stories over a fifty-year writing career. His books were popular enough to make him rich. This book is out of copyright in some countries and can be downloaded free from Gutenberg Australia, for instance, though reprints and an audiobook are available. If Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is a little too stark for you, if you miss Ann and Abby and have a taste for mystery as well as romance, you’ll like Ask Miss Mott.

Michael Cohen is a Professor Emeritus at Murray State University, and author of "Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 2000.