Profile at MysteryNet.com: “The Norths Meet Murder” by Charles L. P. Silet
Between 1940 and 1963 the husband and wife team of Frances and Richard Lockridge published more than forty mystery novels featuring the exploits of Pam and Jerry North. The series proved to be enormously successful, spinning off a movie starring George Burns and Gracie Allen, a long-running (162 performances) play on Broadway, a radio drama which lasted for thirteen years, and a popular television show, with Richard Demming and Barbara Britton, which aired for two years. Of the small number of married sleuths in the history of crime fiction, the Norths had the longest sustained series, which ended only with of the death of Frances Lockridge in 1963.
The characters were originally invented by Richard for some vignettes he wrote for the New York Sun during the early thirties and which he later resurrected in the short domestic comedies he contributed to The New Yorker, by which time the Norths had acquired their full names but not yet their abilities as amateur detectives. A collection of the stories was published in 1936 as Mr. and Mrs. North. The crime novels originated when Frances Lockwood started writing a mystery during one summer vacation. Stuck on a plot complication she called on her husband for help and the writing team was launched. Because the Norths already had some name recognition, the Lockridges decided to use Pam and Jerry as their central characters and retain the humorous tone and the playful interaction between the couple from the earlier stories. The first Mr. and Mrs. North mystery, The Norths Meet Murder, was published in 1940.
The Norths Meet Murder opens as Jerry arrives home from his office at a publishing house and finds Pam organizing a party in the vacant apartment on the top floor of their brownstone. The empty flat can provide the space to dance to the radio–the novel retains a certain Depression-era flavor–and to set up a bar that their second floor flat lacks. Since their landlady, Mrs. Bruno, is having trouble leasing the place, she has left the door unlocked in order to allow prospective renters to look it over. So when Pam and Jerry go upstairs to plan the arrangements for the party, they are able to walk right in. However, on their way out they look into the bathroom and discover the corpse of a man with his head bashed in lying naked in the bath tub.
The discovery of the murder disrupts the domestic tranquillity of the Norths and launches the crime story but also sets the tone, provides the format, and introduces the characters which will define the future books. The police officers who are called in to investigate are Bill Weigand and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Aloysius Clarence Mullins. They form a smart cop, dumb cop duo and are featured in the cases throughout the series. In the later books they are joined by Merton Heimrich, of the New York State Police, and Nathan Shapiro, a lieutenant from the homicide squad. The narrative of the plot is carefully detailed in chapters with specific time limits–“8:00 A.M. to noon”–over the five days of the investigation. Many of the subsequent Mr. and Mrs. North books are carefully limited by such a time scheme. By the end of The Norths Meet Murder Pam and Jerry have proved to be resilient and clever detectives in their own right, and they aid the police in solving the crime.
The Mr. and Mrs. North novels contain carefully crafted puzzles and the Lockridges usually play fair with their readers. The series also features Pam and Jerry’s warmly humorous domestic environment and the couple’s witty exchanges with the duller members of the police force. Although the Norths remain the focus of the series, the books contain a good deal of political and social commentary, a richly detailed look at the changing life in New York City, as well as, glimpses of the outlying suburban counties. Also, the North’s stable marriage relationship presents a marked contrast–and a welcome one–to the traditions of the lone detective characteristic of much other American mystery fiction.
Even though the Mr. and Mrs. North novels now may appear overly deliberate in their pacing, they still prove wonderful reading as mysteries, and the glimpses they provide of our past social history give them a nostalgic and authentic period flavor. Aficionados of classic crime fiction have always appreciated this long-running series, and new readers should be encouraged to discover this witty and charming couple.
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Selected Pam and Jerry North Mystery Novels
- The Norths Meet Murder: A Mr and Mrs North Mystery by Frances and Richard Lockridge. (1940)
- Death Takes a Bow: A Mr and Mrs North Mystery by Frances and Richard Lockridge, (1943)
- Killing the Goose: A Mr and Mrs North Mystery by Frances and Richard Lockridge, (1944)
- Dead as a Dinosaur: A Mr and Mrs North Mystery by Frances and Richard Lockridge, (1952)
- A Key to Death: A Mr and Mrs North Mystery by Frances and Richard Lockridge, (1954)
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.