Disney, Doris Miles

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DISNEY, Doris Miles

Born 22 December 1907, Glastonbury, Connecticut; died 9 March 1976, Fredericksburg, Virginia

Daughter of Edward L. Hart and Elizabeth Malone Miles; married George J. Disney, 1936 (died); children: one daughter

Doris Miles Disney was a prolific, versatile writer of mystery and suspense; she has been praised for never repeating herself, and for skillfully varying her approaches.

Disney created three detectives; each is a fully realized and distinct character. Jim O'Neill, a county detective; Jefferson DiMarco, an insurance claim adjuster, the most famous; and David Madden, a U.S. postal inspector. In Disney's fiction, suspense evolves from both plot and character. Her characters are round and consistently portrayed, their relationships and motivations often creating complex plots. She was particularly adept at characterizing children. For example, Jenny, an eight-year-old girl in Don't Go into the Woods Today (1974), and Sandy, a seven-year-old boy recuperating from rheumatic fever in Heavy, Heavy Hangs (1952), are sometimes cranky, frequently confused by the grown-up world, occasionally disobedient, but often charming and always believable.

Disney began with true mysteries, in which the criminal's identity is withheld until the climax (see, for example, A Compound for Death, 1943, and Murder on a Tangent, 1945, both Jim O'Neill mysteries). Dark Road (1946), a Jeff DiMarco story, is an inverted mystery, in which the murderer's identity and motivation are revealed early. Hazel Clements causes her husband's death because of her desire to be reunited with an old lover. Her greed and ambition are clearly shown, but so is the awful background that helps to explain her actions. At the end, the question of responsibility is paramount, her lover recognizing he has been her unwitting accomplice. Freely adapted, this novel was the basis of a film called Fugitive Lady (released through Republic in 1951). Straw Man (1951; filmed by United Artists, 1953), a Jeff DiMarco novel, begins a true mystery but reveals the criminal's identity midway. Loosely paralleling Dreiser's An American Tragedy (which is alluded to), it movingly shows the alienation and withdrawal of a man wrongly convicted of murder.

For several novels Disney turned to the past. At Some Forgotten Door (1966), a variation on gothic romance, has a partly predictable plot but builds suspense gradually, as the heroine fits together clues to help her understand both her origins and her present danger. Both mysteries are clarified in a powerful climactic scene. Dark Lady (1960) blends past and present; a young professor rents a cottage in which the wife of a gifted young writer had been murdered 75 years earlier. Becoming obsessed with the writer's beautiful sister-in-law, he solves the old mystery and learns to see his own present more clearly.

Disney skillfully manipulated tone as well as plot, as in Family Skeleton (1949), a Jeff DiMarco story, showing what happens when a family first conceals the accidental killing of a cantankerous uncle and then frantically tries to reclaim his body in order to collect his insurance. Their macabre misadventures were filmed by Fox as Stella (1950). More gently comic is Room for Murder (1955), set in a boarding house run by Irish spinsters, one of whom is addicted to true crime magazines and tries to solve the case for the police. The Day Miss Bessie Lewis Disappeared (1972) is more purely comic but also more astringent; Miss Bessie is an elderly termagant, and her former husband, an unsuccessful opportunist, is almost as comically inept as the two goons who trail him.

Disney's novels are consistently interesting and readable—the originality of her plots, the effectiveness of her characterizations, and her skill in controlling tone made her a leader among mystery writers. In addition, her ability to show how victims sometimes precipitate their own fates and how the commission of a crime affects the criminal gives her work a depth often lacking in this genre.

Other Works:

Who Rides a Tiger (1946). Appointment at Nine (1947). Enduring Old Charms (1947). Testimony by Silence (1948). That Which Is Crooked (1948). Count the Ways (1949). Fire at Will (1950). Look Back on Murder (1951). Do Unto Others (1953). Prescription: Murder (1953). The Last Straw (1954). Trick or Treat (1955). Unappointed Rounds (1956). Method in Madness (1957). My Neighbor's Wife (1957). Black Mail (1958). Did She Fall or Was She Pushed? (1959). No Next of Kin (1959). Mrs. Meeker's Money (1961). Find the Woman (1962). Should Auld Acquaintance (1962). Here Lies… (1963). The Departure of Mr. Gaudette (1964). The Hospitality of the House (1964). Shadow of a Man (1965). The Magic Grandfather (1966). Night of Clear Choice (1967). Money for the Taking (1968). Voice from the Grave (1968). Two Little Children and How They Grew (1969). Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate (1970). The Chandler Policy (1971). Three's a Crowd (1971). Only Couples Need Apply (1973). Cry for Help (1975). Winifred (1976). Papers of Doris Miles Disney can be found in the Mugar Memorial Library of Boston University.


Reference Works:

Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996). LJ (15 May 1966). NYHTB (31 Oct. 1948, 21 Oct. 1951). NYTBR (13 Jan. 1946, 22 May 1949, 15 Dec. 1968). WLB (June 1954).