Going for the Golden: “A Matter of Policy”


A Matter of Policy]In 1947’s A Matter of Policy by Sam Merwin, Jr., Jim Leavitt has been hiding from life ever since his father committed suicide four years earlier, making people suspect him of embezzlement. Then Jim’s boss, “Old Batwing,” calls him into his office because the newspaper has listed Jim as among the ones with the largest life insurance policies in the city. Visiting the insurance agency, Jim discovers that someone else has taken out a $500,000 life insurance policy, posing as himself. In concern over the possibility that someone may have insured Jim with the plan to kill him, the agency sends a private detective to accompany the potential victim home, only for the detective to be killed when Jim’s stairs collapse.

With the death, the police detective takes Jim to the nightclub where the beneficiary stars. But Tosta Kaaren, known as the Canarsie Swede, indicates that the Jim Leavitt she knows is a different man. While waiting for Tosta to perform again, Jim spies Juliana Stuyvesant, his former love and “Old Batwing’s” daughter, who has the great detective, Amy Brewster, with her. Together everyone works together to find the fraudster and murderer of the insurance detective.

What follows is a madcap series of events that lead to all manner of craziness. The characters encounter villain after villain, dealing with each one in a unique manner. However, for a book that purports to center on Amy Brewster, it devotes only a small portion of the book to her. Instead, it spends most of its time on Jim and secondarily on Tosta. Further, Amy does not show herself to be the great mind that solves the case, as Jim actually does more thinking than Amy.

The characters in A Matter of Policy also did not come across as very realistic to me, especially the women. At one point, Jim knocks out Juliana by hitting her, and that is what makes her decide that she truly does love Jim because he will stand up to her. Even though I recognize that in 1947 people had different standards about physical abuse, the book still thoroughly turned me off by such portrayals. On the other hand, Tosta and Amy show themselves to be strong women, and even though Tosta and Juliana initially express jealousy of each other, all three women come to admire each other by the end.

The very informative introduction talks about Amy Brewster as a “Proto-feminist figure” who would be seen as another Kinsey Milhone [Sue Grafton’s detective] if she were written today. While Amy does show an independent spirit and clever mind, it is her disgusting habits that truly define her. Weighing over 300 pounds and described as waddling instead of walking, Amy outeats, out-smokes, and out-swears all the men. This to me does not serve as an exemplar of feminism, just someone with bad behavior and habits.

Janelle Bigham performs the audio edition of this book and proves to be a good choice of actresses to narrate this book. Bigham takes us back to the feel of mystery movies from the Golden Age of Detection (GAD) and uses strong voices in particular for the characters of Tosta and Amy, for example giving Tosta a Brooklyn accent that makes her feel like the tough woman of the 1940s’ movies.

A Matter of Policy reminded me of a wild adventure book, maybe even comic book, rather than a true mystery, though there is indeed a mystery to the story. It uses a series of crazy adventures with wild encounters with villains that move from episode to episode. As a mystery, I give this only 2.5 stars, but as a historical example of a GAD adventure book, I give it four stars.

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