Murder Has A Motive features one of my favorite opening lines in a mystery to date: ‘Lydia Dare was dining with a murderer’. It certainly caught the attention, even if I quickly realized that we weren’t in inverted territory here and that Lydia and many of the other characters in this story were performing in a theatrical murder mystery.
Rather than staying with her dining companion, Lydia opts to return to her home as her friend is expecting her back but she never makes it home. Retired tobacconist Mordecai Tremaine’s friend Paul Russell is called in to inspect the body and encourages his friend, who has just arrived to stay with them, to put his detective skills to use and investigate what happened.
We soon realize that most of the suspects seem to be involved in that theatrical production and several seem to be harboring secrets. Mordecai’s efforts are helped when he finds that the detective assigned to the case is a friend from Scotland Yard that he has consulted with before and the two decide to work together, pooling their information.
Mordecai is a curious creation and I must confess that I was a little confused as to whether this was actually the first novel in the series. Based on the publication dates I see on Goodreads it does seem that this was the first book to feature the character yet the references to earlier adventures make me wonder and if this is the first time the character appeared you have to admire Duncan’s gumption in presenting us with one of the more unlikely amateur sleuths in Golden Age crime fiction without a clear explanation of why he is so trusted by Scotland Yard.
The choice of his profession seems curious in itself as the story does not capitalize on it in any way, though I imagine that there are only so many cases that can be solved by correct identification of a tobacco blend. I would have appreciated some explanation of where he first developed and tested the skills he will utilize as an investigator.
Some aspects of the character feel a little familiar from other characters from this period such as Mordecai’s habit of wearing pince-nez glasses but there are also some rather charming character traits such as his love of reading romantic and sentimental stories that do give him some definition. I rather agree with Kate that while I didn’t find him objectionable, I didn’t warm to him. I did appreciate the pairing with Inspector Boyne and that the book took the time to acknowledge a few of the practical problems an amateur sleuth would have in gaining access both to the crime scene and to interview suspects.
While I quite liked the characters and was interested in seeing where the murderer might strike next, I spent much of the book feeling a little underwhelmed by what seemed to be a rather straightforward story. One plotline in particular frustrated me as a character had a secret that seemed so obvious that I could hardly believe that no one seemed to be seeing it yet when the revelation is finally made I was thrilled to realize that Duncan had given it a clever twist, making something far more interesting and complex.
That in a way turns out to be the story of this book. It seems really quite typical and straightforward, playing with some familiar elements, yet I think it does present a few interesting tweaks on some tried and tested ideas. Unfortunately it just takes a little too long to get present those tweaks and I certainly was assuming that this was headed down a very expected path until the end was almost upon us.
Given the quantity of excellent reprints making their way into the market at the moment I think that the novel arguably takes too long to demonstrate the few ways in which it sets itself apart. It should be said though that it doesn’t really do anything wrong with those elements either and I certainly found it an entertaining and often quite enjoyable read.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An amateur detective (Who)
Review copy provided by NetGalley.