“She’s sulky, silly and supercilious. She’s a mystery, they say, but I say she merely wants to be thought a mystery to make a little sensation.”
Not many strangers visit Corinth, so Anita Austin would be noticed even if she weren’t so young and glamorous. The normally idyllic college town has just settled down after a tense election for president of the university, won by professor John Waring. The townspeople are eager for a distraction, and Anita provides one by refusing to discuss her mysterious business. Some think she’s rude. Others, like Gordon Lockwood, are intrigued. The only clue “Miss Mystery” reveals is her intense curiosity about Dr. Waring.
When Waring is found dead in his locked study, Anita experiences the dark side of small-town life, as the locals close ranks against the stranger in their midst.
Carolyn Wells is known more for her prolific output than for her literary gifts, so I was pleasantly surprised by The Mystery Girl—until Waring dies and everything goes haywire. Initially, it is an entertaining comedy of small-town manners, driven by an intriguing central character. Anita’s true identity is not difficult to guess, but the villagers’ reactions to her melodrama are amusing.
“Her eyes seemed to hold all there is of knowledge, yes—and of evil—”
“Evil! My goodness!” Miss Bascom rolled this suggestion like a sweet morsel under her tongue.
“Oh—I don’t say there’s anything wrong about the girl—”
“Well! If her eyes showed depths of evil, I should say there was something wrong!”
Once the killer finally strikes, however, The Mystery Girl enters a spiral of lunacy. The characters we’ve spent so much time with get instant personality transplants. Sweet Emily Bates goes from Dr. Waring’s devoted fiancée to a gold-digger, insisting, “I am the heir,” as her intended lies dead in the next room. Waring’s secretary Gordon Lockwood is eager to poke at his friend’s bloody corpse. He only shows emotion when the police search his own room—how dare they? Lockwood is the only main character involved with the investigation; the rest of them just sit around arguing about whether there could be a secret passage.
Meanwhile, back in the study, Lockwood, Dr. Marsh, and Detective Morton spend all their time sniping about whether there’s such a thing as a round stiletto and whether Lockwood has or has not looked at too many private art collections. At one point, Lockwood removes a piece of crucial evidence from the trash can and destroys it, with no protest from the police. All of this goes on forever. I was legitimately starting to wonder if the rest of the book would play out entirely in that room.
We do get to leave eventually, but no one acts normally at any point. Our presumed detectives Marsh and Morton exit the story, to be replaced for another long stretch by district attorney Cray. Then he also vanishes and Fleming Stone finally, belatedly, takes up the case. This is surely the easiest paycheck any series detective ever earned, as he only appears in the last quarter of the story before busting out with the dumbest solution of all time. Hopefully this is the only mystery in existence where the solution hinges on a suspect’s unibrow.
While every single character takes Anita’s guilt for granted, their attitudes are sharply divided along gender lines. The women would happily see her hang and the men want her free at any cost. Indeed, several men are desperate to marry this femme fatale. One of them hires Fleming Stone when he fears the DA is getting close to an arrest: “If you can solve the mystery of Dr. Waring’s death, and free that girl from any taint of blame, go ahead. But if your investigation leads to her—stop it. I want to marry her just the same, whether she killed anybody or not. But if she didn’t do it, I want to know it.” Stone goes for this deal, by the way.
All of this is baffling and enraging, yet propelled forward by a crazed energy of its own. There are honestly about fifty passages I want to quote—both genuinely funny and unintentionally so.
In some ways,The Mystery Girl is more progressive than one might expect. Dr. Waring’s Japanese manservant Nogi is the subject of all manner of casual racism before neatly turning the tables on the assumptions of the townspeople. The first third of the book also involves a fairly serious discussion of how society expects women to behave. Anita is considered stuck-up because she does not engage in small talk, socialize with people she doesn’t like, or accept the advances of men she isn’t interested in. At one point, she attends a party and nicely takes her leave after meeting Dr Waring. Although her actions breach no formal etiquette, Anita has broken the unwritten laws of the community.
“Of all rude people,” Mrs. Peyton declared, “she was certainly the worst!”
“She isn’t rude,” Pinky defended the absent. “I’m sure, Mrs. Peyton, she made her adieux most politely. Why should she have stayed longer? She didn’t know any of us—and, perhaps she doesn’t like any of us.”
“That’s it,” Gordon Lockwood stated. “She doesn’t like us—I’m sure of that. Well, why should she, if she doesn’t want to?”
“Why shouldn’t she?” countered Tyler. “She’s so terribly superior—I can’t bear her. She acts as if she owned the earth, yet nobody knows who she is, or anything about her.”
“Are we entitled to?” asked Lockwood. “Why should we inquire into her identity or history further than she chooses to enlighten us?”
This is one of many discussions that make Corinth sound like a nightmare town. Apparently it’s not enough for temporary visitors to interact politely with residents. Unless they allow themselves to be pressured into playacting friendships or romances they don’t actually want, they’re not really nice girls. The fact that Anita doesn’t care whether anyone thinks she’s a nice girl is the reason she becomes the prime suspect in a murder. After all, “a girl who would redden her lips would be capable of any deceit and duplicity.”
The Mystery Girl is a decent light novel that maintains some intrigue early on. Unfortunately, as a locked-room mystery, it’s truly dire.
But don’t take my word for it. The Mystery Girl is in the public domain and freely available from Project Gutenberg.