Milton Propper is an author whom I find especially troubling. I thought that the first book of his that I read was "okay". "Meh" was how I felt about the second. However I rather enjoyed my third and fourth encounters with his Tommy Rankin series (even the one with the railway time-table...shudder!) which raises the question: were these Proppers better than the earlier ones I read or had my critical faculties (providing I had any to begin with) taken a long vacation? Contrary to his meagre critical reception, I think that his mysteries do have some merit.
The Divorce Court Murder provides an interesting look into the mores of 1930s Philadelphia. Surprisingly, the setting is not a law court but rather the offices of a legal firm where the socially prominent Adele Rowland is suing her husband for divorce, bringing evidence against him that he has been carrying on an extramarital affair with her secretary, Jill Edmond. It is this accusation of adultery that results in the case being heard in a private law office:
"Rankin was sufficiently familiar with the peculiar divorce law of his state...In Pennsylvania , the proceedings were generally private, instead of being held in open court before a judge and jury. Some member of the bar, called a 'master', was assigned by a justice to listen to the facts of the complaint, and present his findings to him; the court usually followed his recommendation, whether for or against the divorce...With one exception this system did not preclude jury trials where both parties preferred one. There could be no public hearing, if the grounds involved such details of immorality, profligacy or unchastity as to make their disclosure prejudicial to public morals."
As in the other Propper titles, the investigation is carried out by the youthful looking Tommy Rankin who, lacking the brilliance and insouciance of other detectives of his era, relies on perseverance and thoroughness to solve his cases. While Propper is often maligned for his lack of characterization, Rankin and the other characters who populate The Divorce Court Murder are no worse than many British "Inspector Mundane of the Yard" mysteries although his prose will never be considered stylish or witty. While Propper is occasionally praised for his plotting (Francis M. Nevins contends that "his best books hold some of the intellectual excitement of the early novels of Ellery Queen"), I'm not sure that I found all the twists and motives of TDCM entirely credible but the mystery was a fairly engaging puzzle for the most part.