The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

The Death Wish by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“He hates his wife. He’s not just irritated or bored with her. He hates her. That’s a damned ugly thing.”

Every morning, Shawe Delancey drives to the station, commutes to the office, then comes home again for dinner with his wife. On the surface, his life seems ordinary. The truth is quite different, however. His wife Josephine flies into miserable rages, demanding that he account for every moment of his day. Delancey is driven to the station by a chauffeured limousine paid for by his wife. All day, he sits alone in an office also financed by Josephine, waiting for business that never comes. And every evening, he returns, at the last possible moment, to a lonely house. It’s always just him and Josephine because she has quarreled with all the neighbors.

If only he could be more like his friend Bob Whitestone, with a loving wife like Rosalind. Whitestone seems to have everything a man could want—until the night he shocks Delancey with words that will change both of their lives forever: “I wish to God I could kill her.”

The Death Wish is a powerful work of psychological suspense that hinges on the danger of words, the way a wish, once spoken aloud, becomes real, regardless of whether it is ever acted upon. In a single, horrifying moment, Delancey finds himself bound to Whitestone forever by their shared desire to kill their wives. Whether either murder actually takes place is not the point. What Elisabeth Sanxay Holding so brilliantly explores is what happens to an ordinary person as they discover the evil that lies hidden within themselves.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Delancey would find Josephine difficult to deal with. Her jealousy and bad temper are exhausting; at the moment, the only friends she has left are the ones she’s bought, which include her husband. The shy, insignificant Delancey is an unlikely subject for Josephine’s passion, but it is precisely his milquetoast nature that makes it possible to withstand these explosions.

He felt no anger against her, only an immense boredom. These scenes had happened before; she made herself ill by them, by her wild unreasonable jealousy. He had never been unfaithful to her, or even contemplated such a thing, but he could not convince her of that. The only way to end these miserable episodes was by making love to her, flattering her, letting her “forgive” him—for what he had not done.

Whitestone’s predicament is less obvious. Rosalind is everything Josephine is not: young, cheerful, and unfailingly supportive of her husband’s artistic career. She never complains about their financial struggles. According to Whitestone, however, Rosalind subtly undermines his confidence at every turn, convincing all of their friends that his failure as a husband is wearing her down to the bone. She is determined to portray herself as his victim, plastering on “that brave, bright smile.”

Into the lives of these two men comes Elsie Sackett, the young houseguest of their neighbor. Is Elsie a nice girl, a ministering angel, a femme fatale, or simply a stubborn fool? She is all of these things and more. The male characters see Elsie as a puzzle to be solved. What they fail to realize is that she isn’t very interested in being figured out. She remains defiantly, perhaps ruinously, independent, determined to follow her own star no matter where it may lead her. “Whatever else you might say about her, she’s certainly no coquette,” one character observes. “But she’s a troublemaker…”

Over the course of the novel, Elsie will develop quite different relationships with Whitestone, Delancey, and fellow guest Hugh Acheson. Hugh is a wealthy sportsman with little interest in women; he is used to having eligible young ladies dangled in front of him and equally accustomed to politely brushing them off. He’s never met anyone quite like Elsie, though it’s less her personality that attracts him than the strange predicament she finds herself in. For the man who has everything, there is nothing more enticing than a real-life hunt, with murder as the stakes.

Hugh’s forays into amateur detection do not make him popular with the other characters, who label him a “prig” and “hard.” The Death Wish is explicit about the hazards of trying to solve a crime among people you know, aware all the while that the truth will hurt some of them greatly. Here, the police are nothing more than distant enemies. Holding keeps all interactions with law enforcement off screen—visits to the police station and jail are not important for what evidence they might disclose, but for what they reveal about the characters and their emotions. In fact, the reader forgets for long stretches of time that the police are even involved, allowing for some big surprises at the end. For this group, the police are merely a technicality. The one they really fear is Hugh, whose unrelenting pursuit of justice gives him the power of life or death over his friends.

I don’t enjoy hunting down the poor devil. I’m sorry for him…But it’s morbid—it’s dangerous—to keep all your pity for the people who break the laws, and have none for the victims. There’s no one who gets through life without any temptations. Most people are able to resist them, and they’re the ones to be considered, not the others.

It is Hugh, just as much as Delancey and Whitestone, who must confront an evil wish in his own heart. What right does he have to set himself up as an avenging angel, knowing that his quest must end in someone else’s death?

All of these characters are wonderfully complex. Delancey, who views himself as an indulgent and long-suffering husband, is also a spoiled gold-digger. Elsie is fiercely loyal, but to all the wrong people, unrepentant at the havoc she wreaks in the process. Even Josephine’s antics come from a pure love for her husband. There are no simple archetypes here. Everyone is a real person with both good and bad impulses, loves and hatreds that don’t always make sense. They mostly mean well, and that’s exactly what gets them into trouble.

Like Jean Potts’ 1962 novel The Evil WishThe Death Wish is not too interested in the literal truth of whether its characters have committed murder. The guilt is in the wishing. The moment Whitestone and Delancey admit, even just in their own minds, that they long for the death of another human being, they are lost. This guilty knowledge will shape the rest of their lives—everything that happens from this point on springs from that original sin. The Death Wish shows just how much rotten fruit can grow from a single poisoned tree.

Second Opinion

Pretty Sinister

I think [Holding] is one of the unsung pioneers in American crime fiction and she deserves to be noticed for her accomplishments.

Availability

The Death Wish is available in a double volume with Net of Cobwebs from Stark House.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“No one said anything for a long time, and the chill wind of tragedy crept into the room. It was hard to believe, looking out into the sunny gardens, that the master of all this peace and beauty and luxury lay, a stiff headless corpse, in the County Morgue.”

Ellery Queen’s Christmas plans are unusual even for him—the famous sleuth is spending the holidays in Arroyo, West Virginia, where schoolteacher Andrew Van has been crucified and beheaded, his body nailed to a signpost and posed in a T shape. Unable to make any headway on the murder, Ellery slinks home in defeat.

Only a few months later, however, a second shocking crime takes place, this one much closer to home. Wealthy businessman Thomas Brad has been found dead on the grounds of his Long Island estate. Brad’s corpse is crucified, beheaded, and posed just like Van’s. Ellery is certain the crimes are connected, but what could these two men have in common? The answer could lie in the nudist colony that has just moved in across the bay…

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery QueenI began this book with high hopes, after the stunning achievement of The Tragedy of YUnfortunately, The Egyptian Cross Mystery surrounds a fairly good murder mystery with three hundred pages of pointless and mostly uninteresting distractions. The story begins in a lively manner, but Ellery’s early and single-minded focus on one particular suspect quickly plunges it into the doldrums, pushing every other character off the page.

Even Ellery’s father, Inspector Queen, wants nothing to do with this one. That means that instead of working with his familiar cast of New York City detectives and prosecutors, Ellery must win over skeptical law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions. His college professor Dr. Yardley serves as his Watson, though a far from uncritical one. For instance, when Ellery dramatically announces that the corpses are being beheaded and crucified to form the T shape of a tau, or Egyptian cross, it is Yardley who spoils his fun by gently pointing out that they are not at all the same thing. “I’ve heard so much about your pyrotechnical ability as a detective that the reality—sorry if I’m sacrilegious—lets me down,” he grumbles. “When do you commence, Queen?” It’s the same question the reader may be asking.

Ellery’s theory about the Egyptian cross could be important because, aside from the unusual murder method, the deaths of Andrew Van and Thomas Brad seem to have only one thing in common: ancient Egypt. An eccentric man who goes by the name Harakht and dresses in Egyptian robes was traveling through West Virginia at the time Van was killed. By the time of Brad’s murder, Harakht is settled down on an island near Brad’s estate, worshiping the Egyptian sun god Ra with a group of like-minded souls. He, his partner Paul Romaine, and their followers have ditched the flowing robes in favor of wearing nothing at all, to the outrage of their new neighbors (“They were seen capering around Oyster Island absolutely nude, like human goats, and well—we’re a decent community”).

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery QueenAside from the nudists, other suspects include Thomas Brad’s wife and stepdaughter, their secretive chauffeur, a mysterious English couple who live next door, and Brad’s secretary, whose sister has joined up with the nudist colony. Brad’s business partner Stephen Megara is supposed to be off cruising on his yacht, but nobody seems to know exactly where. And I think I have now spent about as much time discussing these characters as the authors do. Almost immediately, Ellery becomes fixated on one suspect, allowing his obsession to drive the entire investigation.

While this does cut down on lengthy suspect interviews, it only provides more opportunities for lovingly detailed searches of Brad’s estate. The searches do generate a few good clues, including a nice chain of deductions drawn from a seemingly abandoned game of checkers. Ellery also shows some self-awareness by alluding to the disastrous search from The Roman Hat Mystery, for which I still have not forgiven him. For every worthwhile clue, however, we get a full chapter of grown men crawling around on the carpet measuring the marks left by furniture legs.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that the book begins very well and, every so often, will suddenly start to perk up again. At last, I would think,  it’s finally getting good, only to be disappointed again and again. Even the nudist colony fizzles out, much like the Fourth of July fireworks over Long Island Sound.

They were silent as they watched a long finger of brilliant light zoom into the dark sky and burst in a flash of dropping velvet colors. The single shell seemed to be a signal; instantly the entire coast of Long Island erupted, and for a space they sat and observed the celebration of the North Shore. Faintly, in the sky above the distant New York shore across the Sound, they made out answering flares, like tiny fireflies.

Now and then someone gets beheaded and crucified, which does liven things up for a while. The murders are exceptionally bloody, and the Queens revel in the gore, with detailed descriptions of every mutilated corpse. This is not a book to read while eating. Even Ellery, who could never be accused of having a weak stomach, is troubled by the level of brutality on display.

You read the old stories, history—of Caligula, of the Vandals, of Moloch, of the Assassins, of the Inquisition. Dismemberments, impalements, flayings…blood, the pages are written in blood. You read…But mere reading doesn’t begin to give you the full, the hot and smoking horror of it. Most of us can’t grasp the monstrous versatility of madmen bent on destroying the human body…Here in the twentieth century, despite our gang wars, the Great War, the pogroms still raging in Europe, we have no clear conception of the true horror of human vandalism.

While the solution itself is not very complicated, the precise motive does rely on previously unrevealed information. The mystery is still easy to solve without that information (Ellery does so, and I certainly did), but I’ll never be a fan of outside information being casually dumped into the denouement. The excitement level goes up considerably near the end, as Ellery embarks on a desperate chase, but even this drags on and on like everything else in this book. They might as well have just printed a set of airline schedules and be done with it.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery proves there can be too much of a good thing. There are so many promising setups in this book that fade away into the monotony of yet another search, another flurry of telegrams, or one more journey. Characters and subplots get dropped until there’s almost nothing left. By the time the killer was finally revealed, the same could be said for my patience.

Second Opinions

Vintage Pop Fictions

Despite the thriller elements there’s a puzzle here as well, of course. Personally I don’t think it’s one of the better Ellery Queen puzzles. When I can guess the identity of the murderer something has gone very wrong somewhere, because I’m generally hopeless at that sort of thing.

Mysteries Ahoy!

While it may not be perfect and I have to admit that the first tenth of the book underwhelmed me, I was more entertained by this than I have been with any of its predecessors. It is a clever story that plays fair, that works to keep the reader engaged throughout the whole novel and that builds to an exciting conclusion.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

The problem here is, the author has thought up a clever, but extremely guessable, plot but cannot find room to introduce any real alternative suspects. 

Availability

The Egyptian Cross Mystery is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press. In November 2020, it will be released in paperback and hardcover by American Mystery Classics.

 

The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) by Rufus King

The Lesser Antilles Case by Rufus King

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

Murder is not like lightning. It’s an established fact that until its source is checked it has an aptitude for striking again, Helen, and again.”

What begins as a leisurely Caribbean cruise ends in terror as the S.S. Helsinor is shipwrecked on a coral reef. The worst is yet to come, however. After several days on a deserted island, Lawrence Thacker, the owner of the yacht, insists they try sailing the lifeboat to safety. Ten passengers board the lifeboat. Only eight will live to tell the tale, and the events they recount are shocking. Lieutenant Valcour must navigate rough waters in this story of murder on the high seas.

Murder Challenges Valcour (The Lesser Antilles Case) by Rufus KingThe Lesser Antilles Case is every bit as clever and sophisticated as one might expected from Rufus King, with Valcour facing a particularly difficult case. There are no bodies, no crime scene, and no real evidence. It’s not even clear whether the New York City police have jurisdiction. And the further their ordeal recedes into the past, the more reluctant the witnesses become. Now that they are back in their comfortable lives, “crime seemed so incompatible with a well-appointed apartment in New York.” The case comes down to an enthralling battle of wills between two formidable women, waged beneath the Caribbean sun.

One of them is Lillian Ash, a numerologist with a penchant for drama. Miss Ash insists that Lawrence Thacker and Third Mate Leighton Klein were poisoned and thrown overboard from the lifeboat while the rest of the passengers were drugged. In doing so, she makes a powerful enemy. Thacker’s aunt Helen Whitestone has always been the gentlest of maiden ladies. When her family’s reputation is threatened, however, she is inspired to stand up for herself, declaring, “I’ve no intention of joining the prevalent fashionable mode of wintering in a jail.” After all, what does anyone know of this Miss Ash, except that she stands to inherit a hefty sum from Lawrence Thacker’s estate? Then again, so does Miss Whitestone, her niece Erika Land, and various other relatives who were all on board the lifeboat. Miss Whitestone initially rouses a protective instinct in Valcour.

When Valcour was shown into the living room he found Miss Whitestone asleep. He stood for a moment looking down at her tired face which was set in old, grim lines. All the trappings and attributes of crime filled him with a faint disgust at moments such as this one. Her years alone had given this woman the right to peace, and yet here she was (because somebody for some private reason had thrown a couple of men overboard into the Caribbean Sea) sunk in a haggard sleep, with all her features hardened in the ugly mask of nervous worry. And here he was, the physical representation of an avenging law, all set, when she woke up, to be evasively tricky and smart and to worry her still further. He wished for the smugly moronic level of mind which could say, without the slightest effect upon the stomach at all, life was like that.

Once he’s heard Lillian Ash’s story, however, he’s no longer so sure. One thing is certain—neither of these ladies will go down without a fight.

In investigating the allegations, Valcour faces a unique challenge: the vast majority of his witnesses are dead. Of the thirty-two passengers and crew members who originally boarded the Helsinor, twenty-two were killed in the shipwreck, not counting the two alleged murder victims. The eight survivors are highly aware that they hold the power to shape the story of what happened in the days leading up to the deaths of Thacker and Klein. It is notable that only three of the eight actually report their suspicions of murder to police; the other five seem willing to let the matter go. Valcour must question traumatized survivors, who, even if they are not being intentionally manipulative, were exhausted, starving, and possibly drugged at the time of the murders. And, of course, one of them may be a killer, hiding behind the mask of a victim.

The Lesser Antilles Case MapbackJust when the inquiry seems permanently stalled, Miss Whitestone has an idea: she will buy a new yacht, the Helsinor II, and recreate the fatal voyage. Even with armed police officers serving as crew, it isn’t long before Miss Whitestone begins wondering whether she’s made a dreadful mistake.

There’s a good puzzle here, but the book’s most appealing quality is its subtly acid-tinged portrait of old money New Yorkers, their lives untouched by the shadow of the Depression. While Miss Whitestone is portrayed rather sympathetically, serving as the viewpoint character among the suspects, there are little touches of ambiguity in her character. She is a perfect lady of the old school, but not all of her old-fashioned qualities are positive. Miss Whitestone frankly admits that if her niece Erika does not get married, she will consider the effort of raising her a complete failure. She never lounges while wearing a hat, thinks sunken bathtubs are not quite nice, and it never crosses her mind to buy a car that would provide protection from the elements to the chauffeur as well as the passengers.

As entertaining as the New York scenes are, it is the interactions on the yacht that further deepen the characters and their relationships. Miss Whitestone grows alarmed by the prospect of a love triangle between Erika and her cousins Roy and Phillip. The murder investigation causes her to examine her nephews with a more critical eye, and she’s no longer so sure that either of them would be a suitable husband for Erika. Lillian Ash reveals herself to be smarter, but also more vulnerable, than her theatrical mannerisms would suggest. Even side characters are sharply drawn, especially the diver who is hired to explore the wreck of the original Helsinor and woos Miss Ash in his own unorthodox fashion.

Mr. Stumpf had had no previous experience on yachts, but he was a widely-read man and knew, from more novels than he could tell of, that young women of wealth—and all young women aboard yachts fell into that class—were only too apt to tire of it all and to yearn for the solider and meatier contact of he-men, in contrast to the Reginalds and members of the foreign aristocracy with whom life’s whim threw them into daily shoulder-rubbing contact […]

He told her about the bends and the diver’s palsy. He moved about with a complete frankness of detail among the intimacies of his interior anatomy, and she had a confused impression, after he had concluded, that Mr. Stumpf was little better than a walking corpse.

Miss Whitestone and her nephew Roy share a telling moment while gazing upon the island where she was shipwrecked. Roy is awestruck by the beauty of the island. Miss Whitestone can only remember the discomfort, the fear, and the boa constrictors. These are wealthy people. Their lives are beautiful. But right now, they can see only death.

The Lesser Antilles Case is a superb shipboard mystery, highlighted by its nuanced characters and prose. Though the solution contains a few improbabilities, this is compensated for by the cleverness of the clues, including a deceptively simple murder method. Above all, this sharp and witty detective story is a wonderful escapism, a pleasure from beginning to end.

Second Opinions

The Passing Tramp

This part of the book recovers some of the high tension of the earlier pair of maritime mysteries, particularly during the nail-biting diving expedition.  However, the first half of the book is compelling as well, a fast-paced, smoothly-written investigation in New York City locales both high and low of events in the near past.

Vintage Pop Fictions

It has to be said that there is one key plot point that may stretch credibility a little. King’s attempt to make it plausible is certainly ingenious and interesting and he just about gets away with it. That’s really the only major reservation I had about this book. Other than that it’s a well-executed example of the golden age detective tale. There are clues in abundance but King knows how to keep the reader guessing.

Availability

The Lesser Antilles Case (also published as Murder Challenges Valcour) is available as an ebook from Wildside Press.

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

What’s bothering me is why the facts don’t fit together. Don’t ever fool yourself that facts don’t fit, if you get the right explanation. They’re just like jigsaw puzzles—when you get them right, they’re all going to fit together.”

What doesn’t fit in this case?” she asked.

Nothing fits.”

Complaints about howling dogs are little outside Perry Mason’s area of expertise. His new client Arthur Cartright is insistent, however, that his neighbor Clinton Foley is inciting his dog to bark for the specific purpose of annoying Cartright. It is obvious to Mason that there is more going on here than a simple dispute between neighbors. As the feud reaches its boiling point, a case that began with a howling dog is about to get much more complicated. Luckily, murder is all in a day’s work for Mason.

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley GardnerThe Case of the Howling Dog is one of the best early Perry Mason novels. Its howling-dog setup is the purest possible example of the typical Mason plot, in which the brilliant attorney’s attention is captured by a strange but seemingly innocuous situation that quickly spirals out of control. As he battles for his client in the courtroom and on the front page, Mason will do anything within the law to win his case—and here, he comes closer to the edge than ever, committing a major ethical breach in service of his client.

When he arrives at Mason’s office, Arthur Cartright is clearly agitated. He claims that the incessant howling of Foley’s dog is driving him crazy. Foley counters with witnesses who swear the dog does not howl. Though Mason secretly wonders whether Cartright might be insane, this only strengthens his resolve to represent the interests of a vulnerable man, however minor his concern may seem to be. In addition, Clinton Foley’s over-the-top reaction to the complaint convinces Mason that there is more to their relationship than either man is willing to share.

Unlike the obviously weird Cartright, Foley seems to be normal enough, living a quiet life with his invalid wife Evelyn. Despite their large and prosperous home, the Foleys employ only two servants, housekeeper Thelma Benton and Chinese cook Ah Wong. (The treatment of Ah Wong is odd. Gardner seems to be setting him up for a significant role in the story, as well as laying groundwork for a critique of the treatment of immigrants, but then seems to forget all about it. Since this plot thread never goes anywhere, we are left only with the offensive initial setup.) Thelma Benton attracts Mason’s attention immediately: she is young and quite attractive, but seems to be intentionally making herself appear dowdier. She is also Foley’s star witness, insisting that his German shepherd Prince is a quiet animal.

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner As Mason delves into the pasts of Cartright and Foley, he learns there is far more to the story than a dog that barks in the night. One mystery follows another, and every time Mason thinks he has a handle on the case, it throws him another curveball. For a long time he doesn’t even know who he’s supposed to be representing. Is it Arthur Cartright, Evelyn Foley, or someone else altogether? (This client, once the confusion is straightened out, proves to be that pearl beyond price—a client who actually obeys Mason’s instructions not to talk to police without a lawyer present. Over the decades, he has instructed every one of his 82 clients to keep quiet, but I can count on one hand the number who successfully manage it.)

One of the shocking things about Perry Mason’s early adventures is how much lying he does. Mason has absolutely no compunction about impersonation, bribery, manipulation, witness tampering, or just plain dishonesty, as long as it is technically legal. “This is on the up and up?” a skeptical accomplice asks. “It’s within the law,” Mason hedges. In The Case of the Howling Dog, he really goes all out. He stashes away witnesses, hires actors to impersonate suspects, leaks false information to the press, and so much more. In the process, he exposes his secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake to potentially serious consequences. Of course, they are happy to sacrifice themselves for Mason, but he never even asks before embroiling them in these situations.

Mason’s other sidekick in this case is law clerk Frank Everly, who receives the benefit of his boss’s hard-earned legal knowledge. Mason’s philosophy is that a defense lawyer’s only moral obligation is to provide the best possible defense for their client. Anything else, as long as it doesn’t actually break the law, is fair game. It’s not enough to have facts on your side, either. An effective attorney must stage-manage a trial as if it were a play.

A jury is an audience. It’s a small audience, but it’s an audience just the same. Now, the playwrights who are successful with plays have to know human nature. They recognize the fickleness of the mass mind. They know that it’s incapable of loyalty, that it’s incapable of holding any emotion for any great period of time […]

Pick some dominant emotion if you want, but touch on it only for a few moments. Then swing your argument on to something else. Then come back to it. The human mind is like a pendulum: you can start it swinging a little at a time and gradually come back with added force, until finally you can close in a bust of dramatic oratory, with the jury inflamed to white rage against the other side. But if you try to talk to a jury for as much as fifteen minutes, and harp continually upon one line, you will find that the jurors have quit listening to you before you finish.

His methods don’t always hold up to cross-examination, however. When Everly points out to Mason that one of his shenanigans has discredited testimony that they both know to be truthful, Mason shrugs it off. It’s always interesting to get these glimpses behind the curtain. Mason presents his methods as pure pragmatism, without ever quite acknowledging how much he contributes to, and thrives upon, the circus-like atmosphere of the courtroom.

“I don’t like routine,” Mason admits. “I want excitement. I want to work on matters of life and death where minutes count. I want the bizarre and the unusual.” He certainly gets all of that and more in The Case of the Howling Dog, which combines Perry Mason’s trademark courtroom pyrotechnics with some startlingly cynical behind the scenes manipulations. Even on the very last page the twists keep coming. With its intricate mystery and superior legal drama, The Case of the Howling Dog is one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s best.

Second Opinion

Mysteries Ahoy!

Unfortunately I can only say that it is a really interesting book with a few elements that did not work for me and detracted from my overall impressions of the novel.

Vintage Pop Fictions

The Case of the Howling Dog is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Availability

The Case of the Howling Dog is available as an ebook and audiobook. The 1934 film version stars Warren William as Mason, in an appropriately rascally performance.

The Catalyst by Josephine Bell (1966)

The Catalyst by Josephine Bell

6 stars (6/10 stars)

You know, if they weren’t so scatty, such an absolute hoot, I’d begin to think they were a bit sinister.”

I’ll tell you what I think. I think they’re first-class liars, one and all. And they hate each other.”

For thirty years, Hugh Wilmot has dreamed of Greece. He’s finally taking the trip, though the circumstances aren’t exactly what he imagined. His wife Florence and her sister Beatrice are ruining the holiday with their bickering, just as their incessant fights have destroyed his home life for so many years. In fact, their rivalry seems to flourish in the sun, with their travels providing a fresh audience for old grudges. Fellow holidaymakers can’t help feeling disturbed, as each member of the trio tells a different version of their relationship. Only one thing is clear: a Greek tragedy is playing out before their eyes.

The Catalyst is a deceptively simple story about how tangled human relationships can become. As this trio of disturbed personalities attach themselves to students Jennifer and Peter and, most fatefully, film star Rosamund Oakley, the presence of outsiders only seems to encourage their dysfunction. One ominous event follows another, each one drastically changing our understanding of what might be going on. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, as violent and deranged events invade a sun-baked landscape of beach outings and package tours. The only thing keeping this from being a masterpiece of suspense is the shallowness of the central characters.

The major problem is that Florence and Beatrice’s sibling rivalry is a little too realistic. Their screeching and yelling nearly overwhelms the narrative, causing the reader to share the exasperation of the other characters. Just when everything is going along nicely, here come Flo and Bee to ruin things. Even when they seem to be getting along, it’s only a matter of time until the next explosion. It becomes exhausting very quickly, to the reader as well as to Jennifer, Peter, and Rosamund.

Hugh and the women had each confided the weakness of the others and had described actions and motives that cancelled one another out. This was disturbing. It made communication vague, unreliable. It was impossible to take any fact or group of facts as a prime cause of their close-knit troubles. Because it was impossible to guess, far less to know, what was fact and what fiction. A fiction moreover born and bred in an abnormal mind. Then whose?

Hugh, Florence, and Beatrice are not, on the whole, likable or sympathetic characters—all three reveal their stories to near-strangers with an unseemly eagerness, desperate to get their version of events out before one of the others beats them to it.

“She must have been very pretty as a girl,” said Rosamund, kindly. “I know exactly what you mean. Lots of admirers and very few friends.”

She was thinking of her own youth. Beatrice understood this and the thought that her famous acquaintance was comparing herself with her despised and hated sister exasperated her.

“Pretty, yes,” she said acidly. “The kind that doesn’t last, I’m afraid.”

There was no possible answer to this and Rosamund made none.

Their accounts are so different on the surface, yet it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which all three versions are true at the same time. Hugh, hating both women, even as he is bound to them by guilt and obligation. Florence, whose now-faded prettiness has brought her nothing real, not even her marriage. And Beatrice, whose intelligence and ability is being wasted by her determination to hold onto victimhood as tightly as she can.

The Catalyst by Josephine BellThere’s not much room for the other characters, with these three sucking all the oxygen out of the room. The only other character who gets much definition is Rosamund, whose kind nature is very different than one might expect from an aging movie queen. The sweet but suggestible Rosamund is in the habit of taking “economical” vacations to decompress before a new role. While Rosamund’s personality seems inoffensive, her status is powerful. The idea that a beautiful actress is taking an interest in Hugh (whatever the nature of that interest might be) destabilizes the delicate balance between Hugh, his wife, and her sister. As the story unfolds, more of Rosamund’s motives are revealed as well, adding undercurrents to a character who otherwise seems a little too good to be true.

The Wilmots, Rosamund, and the young couple Jennifer and Peter are not traveling together, but they keep running into each other as they wander the well-trodden tourist routes from Delphi to Rhodes to Crete. The Catalyst is effective as both a travelogue and an advertisement for the joys of staying at home. Greece may be full of wonders, but first and foremost it is full of people. Two frightening incidents result from Hugh, Florence, and Beatrice being smashed by crowds; it remains ambiguous until the denouement whether these are simple accidents of overcrowding, or whether a malevolent person is taking advantage of the crowds to strike unseen. The fact that so many others are always around makes it impossible for the Wilmots to hide their enmity even as it adds to the confusion that surrounds them.

The plot of The Catalyst is breathtakingly suspenseful and ambiguous. Even when tensions finally erupt, the reader is kept guessing until the very end. If only the people involved were worth all of this drama. Hugh is a textbook midlife crisis, while Florence and Beatrice remain insistently one-note. The fascination of the plot (which, to be fair, is considerable) comes entirely from trying to figure out what is going to happen next; it doesn’t matter at all who it happens to. As is often the case with Josephine Bell, she gets things just right enough to make you wish she’d been able to nail the rest.

Availability

The Catalyst is out of print, with a few reasonably priced used copies available.

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

12_30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early! Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who perhaps were doing a great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Even the irascible Andrew Crowther has to admit that flying is the only way to travel as he enjoys his first airplane ride. He’s in for some very unexpected turbulence, however. By the time the plane touches down in France, Andrew Crowther will be dead—not of the heart condition that’s troubled him for years, but of poison. How did a seemingly harmless elderly man meet his death 10,000 feet above the English Channel? His nephew Charles knows all about it. Now if only he can keep anyone else from finding out.

12_30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
I would never get into this plane.

The 12.30 from Croydon is a superb inverted mystery rooted in the economic anxieties of the Great Depression. There’s no mystery about the fact that Charles Swinburn has decided to murder his uncle Andrew. The enjoyment comes from entering into the mind of a would-be killer, watching him plot the crime, step by step, and attempt to evade detection. This is an especially pleasing example of the inverted mystery because the crime itself is so well-planned and both the perpetrator and the victim are portrayed with relative subtlety.

The motive for the murder is simple: money. Charles wants to marry the lovely and expensive Una. However, the Crowther Electromotor Works has been slowly bleeding profits for some time. Charles has poured everything he has into the company, hoping that the economic situation would improve; a few thousand pounds would surely see him through the current slump. Charles doesn’t have it, but Uncle Andrew does. Whether he’s willing to share it will be a matter of life or death…for Andrew.

The murder plot that results is a marvel. A trained scientist, Charles works his way methodically through his plan, gathering supplies and laying groundwork without letting the reader in on the particulars of the scheme. This allows Crofts to build suspense in plain sight, revealing exactly what is happening while keeping the why and how under wraps. Even as Charles inches closer and closer to crime, he manages to convince himself that he isn’t really going to commit murder right up until the moment he actually does.

Somehow, alone there in the semi-darkness, the excellence of his own plans seemed less convincing than ever before. Stories he had read recurred to him in which the guilty had made perfect plans, but in all cases they had broken down. Those double tales of Austin Freeman’s! All the criminals had been so sure of their safety and the perfection of their schemes, and in every case these watertight schemes had been like sieves; just honeycombed with errors and oversights and clues.

Freeman Wills Crofts’ writing style, like his plotting, is clear and brisk, though admittedly his priorities are somewhat different from those of other authors, leading to some surprisingly coldblooded moments. In the opening chapter, he marvels at the miracle of flight through the eyes of a child—only to reveal that the little girl is unknowingly sharing a cabin with her grandfather’s corpse. The dance upon which Charles pins his romantic hopes is passed over with a handwave, as “one charity ball is very much like another,” while the narrative instead lingers over chamber of commerce lunches and descriptions of machinery.

He passed through the store, nodding to the storesman and running his eye along the shelves with their load of wire, castings, bolts, terminals, and spares of all kinds, and in another section the finished motors, stacked according to size and winding. Charles was very proud of his store, with the continuous card indicator system he had introduced by which at a glance the exact amount of everything stocked could be read off. Also it pleased him to see the neat way in which everything was stacked, and he complimented the storesman on his well-swept floor and tidy shelves.

Crofts never cares much for romance, even when it is meant to be a motive for murder, but his indifference doesn’t harm the story. It’s true that Charles’ desire for Una is less convincing than his love for the continuous card indicator system. Their relationship doesn’t take up much of the story, however, and is far from the worst romantic subplot that’s ever been foisted upon a mystery novel. Una is something of a femme fatale; one can easily imagine the noir version of this plot, but Crofts was never going to go there. He’s always more interested in the mind and the soul than in the heart.

Even as he is actively planning a homicide, Charles struggles to justify his crime from a logical and ethical standpoint. Andrew’s money does no good being hoarded by one old man. How much better for society if the money were being used to keep men in work—and Charles in luxury with Una. These characters are undoubtedly privileged, yet they are not immune from the effects of the Depression. It is oddly fascinating to watch Charles’ juggling act as he struggles to maintain the façade of a prosperous businessman even with the wolf at the door. By his own account, at least, he is a conscientious employer, supporting local businesses and keeping men on salary even when there is no longer enough work coming in to occupy them. It’s not just Charles, of course. Everyone is in trouble these days.

It’s frustrating to watch Charles try to convince the reclusive Andrew, who is something of a trendsetter in social distancing, that there really is a worldwide depression going on.

“Have you got this slump idea on the brain, too?” Andrew quavered. “I can tell you, my boy, that hard work on the right lines put into a business means prosperity, and slackness means failure. That has always been so and it always will. I suppose Bender is playing tennis and golf instead of minding his business.”

“No, I really think that you’re wrong there, uncle…Practically every firm is in the same boat. Look down your paper and you’ll see how receipts have shrunk in every direction.”

The old man chuckled childishly. “It’s only because nobody works now,” he persisted.

(With hindsight, it’s also difficult to watch Charles and his circle cash in everything they have to keep their doomed businesses afloat, knowing that the Depression is going to last so much longer than they expect. One character plans to make his fortune by investing in a farm in the United States. Enjoy that Dust Bowl!)

As much as I love inverted mysteries, there is one weakness universal to the genre. They always grow duller as soon as the police get involved. It’s inevitable—what can investigators learn that the reader does not already know? Crofts staves this off as long as possible by the simple expedient of keeping his series detective Inspector French almost entirely in the background. French appears late and infrequently. Of course, readers will suspect that French, that “pleasant, rather kindly and very ordinary man,” is up to something, and sure enough, there are some unexpected twists in store. Only the ending is belabored, with several long recitals of facts already known, though some of these scenes are at least delivered through an unusual point of view.

The 12.30 from Croydon is a must-read for fans of inverted mysteries, revolving around a meticulously plotted crime and a battle of wits between Inspector French and a clever killer. Even if the landing is a little rough, for most of its length, Crofts keeps the story flying high.

Second Opinions

Mysteries Ahoy!

Charles is ultimately responsible for his own actions and we feel closer to his thinking as he makes each decision that will ultimately lead him to destruction. After witnessing everything from his perspective, the ending has all the more punch. So much so that not even the inevitable tedious and long-winded explanation from French on the last few pages can spoil it!

The Grandest Game in the World

A rather interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment. 

Availability

The 12.30 from Croydon (also published as Wilful and Premeditated) is available in paperbook, ebook, and audiobook formats from British Library Crime Classics and, in the US, Poisoned Pen Press.

The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)

The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

They say that a soul on the lower plane, a malevolent one, is always watchful and always cunning. That this one mass of dead evil is always waiting for the opportunity to take possession of a living body, and change the weak brain for its own, just as it infests a house. Do you think, then, that the clot could take possession …?”

The house on Plague Court has been in the Halliday family for centuries, quietly falling into ruin. Lately, however, things have not been so quiet. Lady Anne Benning believes her nephew Dean Halliday is possessed by the spirit of a sixteenth-century hangman. Under the influence of an enigmatic “psychical researcher” named Roger Darworth, she and Dean’s fiancée, Marion Latimer, are drawn to Plague Court, obsessed by the thought of evil spirits. When the hangman’s dagger vanishes from a London museum, even the skeptical Halliday starts to wonder whether they might be correct. Could he really be possessed by his ancestor’s ghost?

The Plague Court Murders by Carter DicksonThe Plague Court Murders is a master class in terror, a horrifying yet utterly plausible locked-room mystery. Though John Dickson Carr, a.k.a. Carter Dickson, is still only a few years into his writing career at this point, he produces a perfect balance of supernatural chills, sly wit, and relentlessly logical detection, all of it buoyed along by a delight at showing the reader what marvelous toys he has to play with. Sir Henry Merrivale digs into his first case with all the vigor one might expect, building to a chilling denouement.

Determined to learn the truth about his demonic possession (and only with Carr do you get to start a sentence that way), Halliday invites his friend Ken Blake and Scotland Yard “ghost-hunter” Inspector Masters to spend the night at Plague Court. Masters knows all the tricks of fraudulent mediums—if Darworth is staging a haunting, he can surely unmask the fraud. Arriving at the house, “we all moved softly; I don’t know why. Possibly because there seemed such an absolute hush in the desolation of the house before us. Something seemed to be impelling us to move faster; to get inside those high brick walls; something drawing us on and playing with us.” After a series of spooky events, they learn that Darworth is holed up in a small house on the grounds, securely locked away behind stone walls. It turns out that something evil does walk at Plague Court—but it’s after Darworth, not Halliday.

The existence of a real murder would seem to settle the issue of whether the house is haunted. Paradoxically, as Masters points out,

This bogus ghost has definitely destroyed his ghostliness by killing Darworth. So long as it only prowled and rattled windows, it could alarm us. But here’s the funny thing: the moment it takes an extremely ordinary lethal weapon and punches holes in somebody, we get skeptical. Maybe if it had only come in and slashed at Darworth a couple of times, then killed him with fright, it would have been effective. A stabbing ghost may be good spiritualism, but it isn’t good sense. It’s absurd. It’s as though the ghost of Nelson had stalked up from the crypt of St. Paul’s, only to bean a tourist with its telescope.

The subsequent investigation only makes matters more complicated, however. Somehow, a malevolent spirit, human or otherwise, managed to enter a locked house with iron grates on the windows without disturbing the fresh mud that fills the yard. During the murder, six suspects were in the main house, waiting in darkness for their master’s return: Halliday, Lady Benning, Marion, her impressionable brother Ted (“when he was fifteen he got hold of one of the wrong kind of Conan Doyle books”), Major Featherston, and Darworth’s confederate, the drug-addled medium Joseph. But anything can happen in the dark.

A bewildered Blake reaches out to Sir Henry Merrivale, his old boss from the War Office, who comes roaring into the case with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Old H. M. is a lot to take, bellowing and leering at all who cross his path.

H. M. on a Scotland Yard case. … I thought again of that room high over Whitehall, which I had not seen since 1922. I thought of the extremely lazy, extremely garrulous and slipshod figure who sat grinning with sleepy eyes; his hands folded over his big stomach and his feet propped up on the desk. His chief taste was for lurid reading-matter; his chief complaint that people would not treat him seriously. He was a qualified barrister and a qualified physician, and he spoke atrocious grammar. He was Sir Henry Merrivale, Baronet, and had been a fighting Socialist all his life. He was vastly conceited, and had an inexhaustible fund of bawdy stories…

However, his whimsical approach is exactly what’s needed to cut through all the layers of hocus-pocus that entangle this crime. There are the murders, and there is the haunting; each creates enough confusion to obscure the other. Just how much these two matters overlap is what Merrivale must discover.

Merrivale’s summing-up scene is one of the most nerve-wracking moments imaginable, as he conjures up a midnight reenactment of the crime, complete with corpse. “Don’t look at me,” he commands, as the fire blazes hypnotically and footsteps echo in the night, “keep your eyes straight ahead, because the murderer’s nearly here…” Though the atmosphere of the ending is perfect, the solution itself has a few weak spots, including one violation of fair play that is all the more egregious because Merrivale rails against this very practice earlier in the book. While it’s true the offending element is at least mentioned, no ordinary reader could expect it to reappear in the quite the fashion that it does.

Aside from this misstep, The Plague Court Murders is a fascinating locked-room puzzle bubbling over with dread. Its supernatural trappings are all the more frightening for being relatively grounded in real life. Whether Halliday is truly possessed by a ghost, or whether all of his friends and relatives have been drawn into a shared delusion, all of the possibilities are horrifying. When it comes to staging a haunting, Darworth and his friends have nothing on John Dickson Carr.

Second Opinion

ahsweetmysteryblog

Yet, even though it is the first Sir Henry Merrivale mystery, Plague Court shows us a  master of the form ascending toward the top of his game. His later works might pour on the atmosphere less thickly, but Carr knows how to imbue his tales with elements of horror, to leaven them with humor, and to juggle enough tricks to mystify his readers throughout! The Plague Court Murders does just that! It’s a gem!

The Grandest Game in the World

It is certain that no reader will ever get the murderer’s identity, very cleverly hidden from the reader; yet the clues are all there, as they are to the method, which, like the identity of the murderer, is thoroughly unexpected.

The Green Capsule

If I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders.  No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood.  Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach.  To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.

Availability

The Plague Court Murders is out of print, with used copies available.

 

For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke by R. Austin Freeman (1934)

For the Defense Dr Thorndyke by R Austin Freeman

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It is rather an alarming thing to see one’s description outside a police station and to learn that one is wanted for murder.”

Artist Andrew Barton has two problems. One is his nose, which was smashed beyond recognition in an accident. The other is his cousin Ronald, whose sponging ways have been lightening Andrew’s pocketbook for years. Since the accident, Andrew is even more afraid of Ronald—the two cousins used to resemble one another, and he worries that his wife Molly might now prefer Ronald’s appearance to his own. When Ronald needs to borrow money yet again, Andrew concocts a white lie so that he can keep Ronald and Molly from meeting. Little does he realize that this harmless fib will make him the prime suspect in not one, but two separate murders.

For the Defense Dr Thorndyke by R Austin FreemanFor the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is an unusual and effective story that takes the form of an inverted mystery. The reader is privy to Andrew Barton’s deepest thoughts as he plots and executes his “crimes,” which at first amount to nothing more than lying to his wife. Over the course of one eventful twenty-four hours, however, Andrew finds himself implicated in a staggering number of incidents. R. Austin Freeman coolly recounts Andrew’s activities in detail, while keeping the reader in the dark about what might be happening behind the scenes. Even the smallest decision has fateful consequences, crafting a relentlessly logical chain of events.

Andrew’s first trouble comes through no fault of his own. He is simply walking down a country lane one evening, when masked robbers attack a passing vehicle. Though he plans to report the crime to police the following day (no hurry there!), Andrew has more pressing matters on his mind. Determined to prevent Ronald from coming into contact with Molly, he tells his wife that he has business in London. In reality, he is meeting his cousin in a nearby town. A swim with Ronald on a deserted beach ends in tragedy, but when Andrew arrives at the police station seeking aid, he is greeted by a nasty surprise: he is wanted for the roadside murder of the previous night. There seems to be only one option. In order to keep his freedom, he must become Ronald.

Thanks to a bit of impromptu plastic surgery, Andrew has regained his handsome appearance. Like Narcissus, he is entranced by his own reflection.

His mind was still in a whirl of confusion from the crowding events and the repeated shocks that he had sustained, and, above all, from the glimpse of his cousin’s face looking out at him from the mirror. He had still the feeling of being in a dream or under some sort of spell of enchantment, of moving in a world of unrealities. The change that had been wrought in him had been too sudden and profound for complete realization. In the space of less than an hour he had become a different person. It was no mere matter of disguise. He was actually a different person. The Andrew Barton who had set forth from Fairfield that morning, had ceased to exist. In his place had been born an entirely new individual; and that individual was himself.

There is one thing he has failed to consider, however. “In slipping out of his own personality, he had slipped into that of another person; and thereby had taken over the reversion of that other person’s crop of wild oats. And it seemed that those wild oats were now ripe for the harvest.” Cousin Ronald’s activities have always been slightly murky to Andrew. By assuming his cousin’s identity, is he trading one bad name for another? He certainly has to wonder after a hostile encounter with a strange woman in a railway compartment.

She flung herself back on her seat and for the short remainder of the journey sat silent, crimson-faced and scowling, perfectly still, but with a stillness suggestive of violence repressed to bursting-point. Andrew felt as if he were travelling with a Mills bomb.

After further complications, Dr. John Thorndyke becomes involved in the case. Since he is both a medical doctor and a barrister, Dr. Thorndyke is admirably suited for criminal investigation. Like Perry Mason, he represents only innocent clients. Unlike Mason, however, he does not take that innocence on faith, believing nothing until science has proven it true. As a result, Thorndyke’s personality can come across as cold, even a little sinister, at one point regarding his client “with an expression that made his flesh creep.”  Though Dr. Thorndyke is most famous as a scientific detective, that expertise doesn’t get much of a workout here. In fact, Thorndyke doesn’t do much detection at all. For this case, it’s his legal acumen that’s needed—unfortunately, as the legal scenes add an unwelcome tedium at a crucial point in the story.

Still, For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is a generally lively read that considers the implications of trying to become someone else. While not a true inverted mystery (since Andrew is not guilty), it is very much in the spirit of one as he tries to get away with a variety of crimes he has not actually committed. Although I have read some short stories by Freeman, this is my first encounter with one of his novels. If For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is typical of his work, it will be the first of many.

Availability

For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is out of print in the US. Paperback and ebooks editions are available in the UK from House of Stratus. This title is in the public domain in Australia; a free ebook is available to Australian readers at Project Gutenberg Australia.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (91/0 stars)

That’s what comes of investigating a crime in which all the suspects are daffy. Reason! Motive! Logic!” He threw up his hands. “Bah!” he said.

For decades, the antics of the “mad Hatters” have delighted New Yorkers and tormented the father of the family, York Hatter. It’s sad, but not surprising, that York has finally taken his own life. In the aftermath of his death, however, conditions have not improved at the Hatter mansion, where everyone must follow the will of the wealthy and mentally unstable Emily. Any of her children or employees might wish to free themselves from Emily’s dictatorial ways. Yet when the murder attempts begin, they are aimed at an unexpected target. Actor turned detective Drury Lane must determine whether one of the Hatters is truly mad before the entire family is wiped out.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen The Tragedy of Y finally brings all of Ellery Queen’s gifts together into one brilliant work. The crimes are striking, the characters are distinctive, and the solution is breathtaking. While still a bit too long, the pacing is also much tighter, with many of the tedious scenes of searches and interviews that dragged down previous books streamlined or eliminated altogether. Queen no longer feels the need to pretend that thirty different suspects are all equally likely to have committed the crime; instead, Lane focuses his attention on only a few locations and suspects, with excellent results.

The Hatter family first comes to the attention of Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno through the disappearance of York Hatter. Once a promising chemist, York found himself increasingly dismayed by his wife Emily’s harsh, erratic ways, which have damaged their adult children.

One of them was always in the news. If it was not blond Conrad attempting to wreck a speakeasy in his constant cups, it was brilliant Barbara leading a new poetry cotillion, or holding levee under the lavish endearments of the literary critics. Or it was Jill, youngest of the three Hatter children; beautiful, perverse, sniffing sensation with avid nostrils. Once there had been the faint rumor of an excursion into the land of opium; occasionally the tale of a carousing week-end in the Adirondacks; always, with bimonthly monotony, there was the announcement of her “engagement” to some son of wealth … never, it was significant, to a son of family.

York’s disappearance is seemingly resolved when a body surfaces in New York Harbor. Its pocket contains a suicide note signed by York Hatter. In the months that follow his death, however, the Hatters are cursed by a series of sinister events. The crimes all seem to be meant for Louisa Campion, the beloved daughter of Emily Hatter’s first marriage. Louisa is deaf, blind, and mute, but her other senses are highly developed. She is able to provide more clues than the killer might have expected, which only puts Louisa, her half-siblings, and Conrad’s wife and two young sons in even greater peril.

The character of Drury Lane is toned down a great deal here, compared to his introduction in The Tragedy of X. He comes off as quite a credible detective, rather than the ego monster of the previous book (though the narrator still can’t help reminding us that the sixty-year-old Lane doesn’t look a day over forty). There is a strange dynamic forming between the three sleuths. In the first book, Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno are starstruck by the famous actor, only to find themselves helpless as he steamrolls over them. Now, Lane seems to make Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno uncomfortable with his very presence, yet Thumm, at least, is more than willing to clap back. When Lane compliments him for a good idea, Thumm responds sarcastically, “I get ’em sometimes—mostly when you’re not around. You take something out of me.” Lane’s deafness is barely mentioned here, though once again he tries to impersonate a person whose voice he has never heard—good luck with that. However, his deafness does allow him to be sensitive to Louisa’s situation. He is able to win her trust even as it never occurs to the others that she might be able to communicate.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery QueenIt’s hard to know what to make of the book’s treatment of Louisa. Lane and a few others are kind to her, and she is actually the most observant witness in the case. She notices more, and communicates more clearly, than any of her relatives (even Thumm admits that Louisa is the only member of the family who’s all there, mentally). Yet the narrative itself seems to hold Louisa at arm’s length. Much is made of her blank, staring eyes; she is described as madly flapping her hands about even after it is known that she is speaking in sign language. Emily Hatter’s deep love for Louisa is one of her few endearing qualities, but everyone else considers it further proof of Emily’s insanity. Thumm, Bruno, and even Louisa’s own siblings refer to her as “the deaf-mute” and “the deaf, dumb, and blind woman” instead of by name. Thumm has a soft spot for Barbara Hatter, in part because she has what he considers the “correct” attitude toward Louisa: “I won’t say she loves the deaf-mute, but from all I’ve fished out of ’em Barbara pities her, tries to help her get some interest in life—what you’d expect a real woman with a heart in her to do.” Given the book’s themes, this portrayal of Louisa as something incomprehensible and less than human has ominous implications.

Questions of eugenics and breeding come up over and over in Tragedy of Y. It’s repeatedly stated that Emily should never have had children, given her disease, which is strongly hinted to be syphilis. Strangely, however, the famous “madness” of the Hatters is so subtle that only the keenest eye can detect it. Even the infamous Emily comes off as more eccentric and misunderstood than actually insane, a woman who makes men uncomfortable because she will not compromise herself to please them.

Into the mortuary trooped a silent company: a woman and three men. It was not necessary to wonder why the woman should be in advance of the men; this woman, you felt, would always take the lead, hold the reins, press the charge. She was old, old and hard as petrified wood. Her nose was a pirate’s hook; her hair white, and her eyes dipped in ice, blue, and unwinking as a buzzard’s. That chunky jaw would never waggle in surrender.

Since so much of the story depends upon the idea of inherited disease, it’s worrisome that detecting this madness is so difficult and subjective. Drury Lane makes much of the fact that the Hatters look perfectly normal and healthy—only a trained eye like his own could spot the signs of mental instability. In fact, the signs are so small as to be barely discernible to the reader. I only recall two examples of the siblings behaving abnormally in the entire book: Conrad flying into a rage during an interrogation, and Conrad and Jill becoming hysterical at the reading of their mother’s will. But since it’s common knowledge that the Hatters are mad, it’s easy enough to see tiny proofs of it if you, like Lane, are looking for them. Disturbingly easy.

That ending, though…what a shocker it must have been in 1932. Even now, when readers may not be so surprised by this particular twist, the way it plays out is astonishing. And even better, the solution really is the only one that makes sense; all the evidence points to it, with the choice of weapon serving as one particularly inspired clue. So far, I have found the first two Drury Lane novels to be harder and more mean-spirited than the Ellery Queen books; that ruthlessness is put to perfect use here, as Lane presses inexorably forward with a course of action that most detectives would shrink from.

The Tragedy of Y strikes me as the first “real” Ellery Queen book. Each of their preceding novels has some unique aspects that make it easy to understand their growing popularity, and The Greek Coffin Mystery is especially impressive, with its ingenious solutions. But this is the first time all of the necessary elements have come together to create a complete and immersive experience. It’s truly a stunning achievement, with an ending that will linger in the memory.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

This is one of those rare titles that just grabbed a piece of me and held on to it.Murder in RetrospectGreen for DangerFog of DoubtShe Died a LadyDeath Comes as the End, maybe even The Hollow – these are books that stick in your mind, and The Tragedy of Y goes down as one of those.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

This is a vast improvement on The Tragedy of X. Drury Lane seems a more human character this time round and has reined in his quotations, to the extent that he does seem quite different to the character of Ellery Queen this time round. 

At the Scene of the Crime

So to sum things up, the story is readable overall, even if its solution is extremely predictable. It could’ve done with some polishing and it may have worked far better without Drury Lane in a starring role. A more appealing detective is called for— a more reasonable, likeable one, not an exaggeration of unlikeable mannerisms.

Availbility

The Tragedy of Y is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.

The Case Is Closed (1937) by Patricia Wentworth

The Case Is Closed by Patricia Wentworth

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

If she was telling lies—and I’m sure she was—it was because she wanted to screen somebody else. And we’ve got to find out who it is—we’ve simply got to.”

Hilary knows she’s being ridiculous, but she just can’t help it. The sight of her ex-fiance Henry seems to drive all common sense out of her head. Seeing Henry so unexpectedly at the station, all she can do is jump into the nearest train before he spots her. Of course it is entirely the wrong train, and now she’ll never make it to tea at her aunt’s.

This simple mistake is about to reopen an old wound for Hilary’s family. Over a year ago, her cousin’s husband, Geoffrey Grey, was convicted of murder. Now he’s serving a life sentence. Hilary has always known Geoffrey was innocent, but there is nothing she can do about it. The case seems closed for good, until a chance encounter changes everything. Will Hilary be able to save Geoffrey’s life, or will she lose her own instead?

The Case Is Closed by Patricia Wentworth The Case Is Closed is a sprightly adventure with a rambunctious heroine and plenty of 1930s atmosphere. Though it is the second entry in the Miss Silver series, it comes after a long gap following the character’s introduction in 1928’s Grey Mask. This book actually feels more like a standalone than part of a series. Hilary Carew is decidedly the main character, and her on-again, off-again romance with Henry preoccupies her nearly as much as the murder does. Almost all of Miss Silver’s detection happens off screen, so she never feels connected to the other characters. If you’re reading this for Miss Silver, that might be an issue, but I didn’t mind her smaller role here.

The facts of the case seem simple enough. Moments after a shot rang out, Geoffrey Grey was found standing over the dead body of his uncle, James Everton, holding a gun. Only the day before, James had stated that he was disinheriting Geoffrey. The only other plausible suspects, Geoffrey’s cousins Bertie and Frank Everton, have impeccable alibis. “If they had been specializing in alibis for years they couldn’t have come out of it better.” Even Hilary must admit the evidence looks black against Geoffrey, but she is determined to prove his innocence nonetheless.

Hilary’s journey begins, appropriately, in the train compartment which she shares with a middle-aged couple. When the man leaves, the woman nervously confides in her. Recognizing Hilary from Geoffrey’s trial, she seems to know something about the murder, but “he won’t let me” talk. Later, Hilary is able to identify the woman as Mrs. Mercer, the victim’s housekeeper—one of the witnesses who testified against Geoffrey.

Geoffrey’s wife Marion begs her to leave the case in the past. By night, she sleepwalks in torment, but by day she has achieved a kind of numb acceptance of her situation. Marion is afraid that false hope will destroy her.

“He’s going away from me all the time—dying away from me—and I can’t do anything about it.” She took hold of the back of the armchair and leaned on it trembling. “Think of him coming out after twenty years, quite dead! What can you do for a dead man? He’ll be quite, quite dead by then. And what shall I be like? Perhaps I shall be dead too.”

Instead, Hilary only becomes more determined to restore Marion to happiness, blithely shoving her way through all obstacles. Hilary acts first and thinks later, sometimes much later, but she has excellent instincts. When she impulsively hops a train to a strange town and gets off with no idea of what to do next, it’s great fun to watch her plunge into action. The fact that her tactics are so old-fashioned only makes them more delightful. How can you find someone when you don’t know where they live? Not the phone book—almost no one has a phone. Not the post office—everyone calls for their mail. The obvious answer is milk delivery: “The thing you are least likely to go out and shop for yourself is milk. Nearly everyone lets the milkman call.” A town of any size will have many dairies delivering milk, but Hilary remains dauntless. At another point, she doggedly knocks on the door of every cottage along a seven-mile stretch of road, despite worsening weather.

The morning had been fine, and the weather forecast one of those which thoughtfully provides for every contingency. Hilary, having picked out the pleasant words “bright intervals,” hadn’t really bothered about the rest of it, but as she looked at that low grey sky, lost fragments emerged uneasily from the corners of her mind. There was something about “colder”, and it was certainly turning colder. That didn’t matter, but there was also a piece about “rapid deterioration later,” and she had a gloomy feeling that the word fog came into it somewhere. She ought to have read it more carefully, but the honest truth was that she hadn’t wanted to. She had wanted to get on with this business and get it over, and really, in November, if you allowed yourself to be put off by what the weather forecast said, you might just as well throw in your hand and hibernate.

Her investigation takes her to a wide array of towns and businesses. The enterprising Hilary pawns her jewelry to pay for train tickets and cream teas as she hops from Putney to Edinburgh, between surburban villas, desolate cottages, bicycle shops, garages, and tenements. It’s a lovely window into ordinary British life of the time.

At Ledstow she had tea. She had it in a sort of parlour in the village pub. It was very cold, and stuffy with the stuffiness of a room whose windows have not been opened for months. Everything that could be cleaned was very clean, and everything that could be polished was very highly polished. The red and green linoleum shone like a mirror, and a smell of soap, varnish, turpentine, bacon, onions, and old stuffed furniture thickened the air. There was a sofa and three padded chairs upholstered in an archaic tapestry whose original colour or colours had merged into an even drab. There were paper shavings in the fireplace and, on the mantelshelf above, a bright blue vase with a bunch of pansies painted on it, a copper lustre sugar-bowl with a wreath of lumpy pink and blue fruits below the rim, a horrid little ornament displaying the arms of Colchester (why Colchester?), a brass bedroom candlestick shining like gold, and a pet of a zebra, all stripy, feeding out of a little girl’s hand. The little girl had a sprigged dress with a yellow petticoat, and the zebra carried a pair of panniers, one heaped up with fruit and the other with flowers. Hilary loved him passionately at sight, and by dint of dwelling fondly upon his stripes contrived to forget that the tea was bitter and the butter rancid, and that she was no nearer finding the Mercers than when she had set out.

There are also some moments made ironic by hindsight, such as Henry’s struggle over whether to leave the army to take over the antique shop he’s inherited. Little does he realize that he’ll be right back in uniform just a few years later.

Over the course of the novel, Hilary will face graver situations than a chilly tearoom, which her common sense and rugged good cheer enable her to meet with aplomb. Other aspects of Hilary’s personality are less endearing. Henry is right that she’s flighty, spoiled, and addicted to drama, of which there is far too much in their relationship. (Of course, she’s also right that Henry is “a natural trampler” looking for a doormat.) Worst of all is Hilary’s “imp,” which breaks into verse at random, far too frequent intervals. It is TERRIBLE and may be enough on its own to put off some readers.

For who can overlook the imp, The Case Is Closed offers many charms. Hilary may not be a perfect heroine, but it’s rare to meet a female protagonist this gutsy and irreverent, and she keeps her head when it really counts. Her adventures also expose the reader to aspects of everyday life that are not always portrayed in literature. For most of its length, the plot is more thrillerish than mysterious—it seems fairly clear who is involved, it’s just a matter of proving it, which does involve some tricky detection at the end. As long as Hilary is able to keep her imp at bay, however, The Case Is Closed is a pleasure to read.

Second Opinion

ahsweetmysteryblog

For all this going over the same evidence, ultimately, it all boils down to . . . not very much! In the sense that everyone else has an alibi, the case against Geoff may resemble an “impossible” crime. But as each witness is approached, a bit of that airtight case crumbles until you have to ask yourself if anybody in the British legal system was doing their job during the investigation or the trial. Everybody’s evidence appears to have been taken at face value, yet nobody’s testimony stands up to the winsome charms of Hilary Carew, a girl with no particular spark of intelligence and a rather annoying sense of entitlement throughout.

Fleur in Her World

The story played out beautifully, and though I guessed how the mystery would play out the characters and their relationships were engaging and believable. I was involved, and I wanted to be there as events played out.

Availability

The Case Is Closed is available as an ebook from Open Road Media in the US, and in paperback and ebook formats from Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. This title is in the public domain in Canada, and a free ebook is available to Canadian readers on Project Gutenberg Canada or Faded Page