I had my first encounter with Molly Thynne and her amateur sleuth Dr. Constantine in the run up to Christmas with The Crime at the Noah’s Ark – a fun festive mystery where the suspects and sleuths are all snowed in together. Thynne followed that story with Death in the Dentist’s Chair which was to be the second of the three novels to feature Dr. Constantine. Here he has graduated to being a sort of consultant to the Police though he happens to have been a witness of sorts in this case.
The novel opens with Constantine as one of several patients waiting to be seen by their dentist. Lottie Miller, a retired actress, is the next patient to be seen by Dr. Davenport but when he steps out of the room to make an adjustment to her dentures, he returns to find that the room has been locked. When he finally succeeds in breaking into the room he finds her dead with her throat savagely cut by a strange blade.
Before anyone gets too excited, forget the mention of a locked room – we are not in impossible crime territory here! Our focus instead should be on the question of who had the opportunity and the knowledge of the floor plan of the dentist’s office and of Mrs. Miller’s movements to commit the crime when most of the suspects were sat in the waiting room together. A further complication is added when a second murder is found to have been committed with a similar blade yet it is not clear why the two crimes would be connected.
I found the initial set-up to this story to be quite intriguing although I was a little surprised at how quickly the action moves beyond the actions in the dentist’s office. In the latter half of the story I felt puzzled about where things were headed and while I think Thynne provides a solidly reasoned solution in the end, it comes about so abruptly that I had to reread sections to check that I hadn’t missed something.
Detective Arkwright and Dr. Constantine are both working towards the same end and are friends yet there is also a sort of friendly rivalry between the two. Constantine keeps quiet about some of the leads he is pursuing and there are several moments in the book where Arkwright realizes that he is on the same trail as his friend. This relationship echoes one of the elements of the previous Constantine investigation that I found most pleasing – the attempts by some of the investigating characters to understand and interpret the actions of their colleagues – and I appreciated the little jealous moments that Arkwright has.
In my previous review I remarked on how much I enjoyed Dr. Constantine as an investigator but while the character’s strengths remain the same, I feel that some of the weaknesses or causes of frustration remain. For instance, we once again find that Constantine refuses to tell Arkwright or the reader what he is doing at a few points in the story. This allows the character to have his moment of brilliance at the end of the story but it does feel like an artificial way of preventing the reader from being able to out-think the sleuth.
One refinement to the character in this book is his reliance on his diligent manservant Manners who, it turns out, is a bit of a dab hand at going undercover. This character is quite charming and though he has quite a mild personality, I appreciated how he was used in the story and that Thynne avoids going too far down the silly costumes and false noses route in doing so.
On the other hand, other aspects of the character still seem a little loosely drawn and there is a sense that this is one of those flawless investigators who just simply seems to know everything. A good example of this comes when an object needs to be evaluated and Constantine is able to put a very accurate estimate of the price in spite of saying that he possesses little interest in the field. It is a quibble but I would rather see some of that information sourced elsewhere and focus on his powers of logical reasoning as in the first novel rather than have him be a walking encyclopedia.
Thynne’s suspects are a fairly mixed bunch of characters though I felt only one really established themselves for me. I did enjoy that she has her characters hit dead ends in their theories about some of them and though that may not make for the most dynamic or dramatic storytelling, it does make the investigation itself seem more credible.
While I liked several elements of Death in the Dentist’s Chair I did feel that it was neither as cleverly plotted nor as interesting a case as The Crime at the Noah’s Ark which I liked considerably more. Though there are some striking moments along the way, the ending here feels a little too abrupt and I felt that too much of Constantine’s deductive process happens in the background. Still, I do fundamentally quite like Constantine and I feel that Thynne’s writing style is really quite entertaining so I will look forward to reading the final installment in the series at some point soon.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime-solving duo (Who)