The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis

The Servant of Death
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1932
Inspector Wilton Jacks #3
Preceded by The Capital City Mystery
Followed by Cries in the Night

At the very start of 2018, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a review of Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book sounded fascinating and I duly ordered a copy but one of the things I appreciated most about Kate’s review was that she pulled out books that Evans liked as suggested reading for some of her fellow bloggers.

Kate’s reasoning for suggesting this book for me was quite simple: it is an inverted mystery and I make little secret of my love of this sub-genre. In what is something of a first for me, I was taken aback when right before the final chapter I was commanded to stop reading and decide how the murderer will be caught. Yes, there is a challenge to the reader in an inverted mystery!

The story is told from the perspective of Eyliffe Trent Van Maarden, a man born into a notable family who has managed through poor fortune and judgment to go from a comfortable existence to becoming heavily indebted to a lawyer he went to college with who loaned him money. He has lost his investments, his family home and now lives as a tenant of that lawyer, paying him monthly installments that barely touch the principal of the loan.

One possible way out would be through marriage to a childhood sweetheart who has become a wealthy widow. Eyliffe has been biding his time before making romantic overtures to her to try to make sure of his feelings. Unfortunately for him, while he has been thinking about making his move that same lawyer friend has been actively wooing her and Eyliffe is sure that it will just be a matter of time before they get married. Unless something were to happen to him first…

As with many of the strongest inverted mysteries, the book is essentially a character study of a criminal that forces the reader to assess that character and determine how and why they have made the choice to take a life. You might argue that Eyliffe is made by circumstance, his actions borne out of a sense of hopelessness. Alternatively, his sense that he is a victim and his paranoia may be skewing his perception of events. I would suggest that here it is the second of those options and I think this view is only reinforced by events that occur in the immediate aftermath of that murder.

Eyliffe is, as we have established, living on extremely reduced means and in humiliating circumstances. While we are told that he has realized that he loves Madeline, we might equally well think that he has decided that she could be his saving and his way to retain face and status. Given those circumstances, he seems a credible candidate to morph into a killer.

While Downing’s short review will try to sell you on the idea that he has committed a seemingly perfect crime, I think that is an exaggeration. The crime, while efficient, is hardly ingenious in its creation or execution. Certainly it seems unlikely that anyone might track him down based on the initial evidence but it is not particularly hard to figure out how they might trace the crime back to him. The journey to that point is entertaining though and I think there are some excellent false leads and developments dropped in along the way.

What I think makes this story interesting and what I think gives it a rather different tone are the ways in which we see Eyliffe’s crimes affecting his mood and behavior as the novel goes on. The tone is sometimes haunting, sometimes a little melodramatic, but I think it is effective and helps explain why he makes some of his choices, particularly in the final third of the novel.

With so much of the focus falling on Eyliffe and his actions, it will likely not be surprising that few other characters get much attention. Of those that do feature, Madeline is probably granted the most space but I did not feel we really got to know her. She is less important as a character in her own right than she is as an influence on our murderer and indeed she is written out of much of the second half of the novel.

One character who does make a big impression is the young law clerk Veede who lives in the same building as Eyliffe and has decided that he will study criminology in the hopes of finding his boss’ killer. Keep in mind that while a police investigation does take place in this novel, in fact featuring Wallis’ series detective, almost all of that sleuthing takes place in the background. This makes Veede the most visible threat to Eyliffe’s safety and because we have little idea what information he has been able to confirm or what he has deduced from it, we cannot know for sure how far along the case against him has become.

When Eyliffe is undone, as all criminals in inverted mysteries inevitably are, it happens quickly. I appreciated the opportunity to pause to consider the evidence and I liked the solution of how he would get caught a lot, feeling that it was tidy, simple and well explained. I also appreciated that there are some aspects of this story that give the book a strong sense of place and time, such as the suggestion that a scientific test might be applied to this case to identify the killer or establish a suspect’s guilty.

Overall, I felt that The Servant of Death was one of the stronger examples of the inverted mystery form I’ve read yet. Wallis creates a memorable killer and I think his reasoning for that person’s actions throughout the novel make sense, even if we might view some of those choices as being bizarrely risky or foolish. It sadly is not in print so if the concept of this one interests you, do keep in mind that it may be tricky or slow to track down. I do think it is worth it however for those that do.

7 thoughts on “The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis

  1. Glad this mystery was a good one. Love the idea of a challenge to a reader in an inverted mystery! From the sound of it, would you say this author is harking back to or making a nod towards crime and punishment in any way?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was very pleased that it was too! I have not actually read Crime and Punishment but from having quickly read the Wikipedia entry I am presuming you are referencing the idea that the crime sticks with the murderer and the sort of delirious reaction to it that he has.

      The MC here certainly does have spells where he sees his victims everywhere he looks and I do think there is some truth to the idea that it is his attempt to cover up his crime that causes its detection. Beyond that I’m not sure but it is certainly an interesting question. Wallis seems to have been quite well read so it wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah it was the killer’s state of mind post murder which suggested the parallel to me. I have read Crime and Punishment, but it is not one I’d seriously recommend, even to an inverted mystery enthusiast such as yourself. Absolute torture trying to get through it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I appreciate the warning. Somehow I had never thought to include it on my list of future inverted reads but reading the description it all sounds rather too melodramatic and heavy for my taste.

        I’d say that yes, the MC does have little phases where he sees his victims all around him but that’s not his usual frame of mind. He is a fairly confident character for much of the story, believing that his higher social class means that he won’t make the same types of mistakes that ordinary killers would do. He is, of course, quite mistaken…


  2. One of your comments in the post got me thinking – “When Eyliffe is undone, as all criminals in inverted mysteries inevitably are, it happens quickly.” In your experience with inverted mysteries, how do you find the denouncements comparing with those of a normal-form mystery? Do you still tend to get the long winded explanation from the detective, or do matters tend to wrap up more quickly so the focus can shift towards the impending punishment?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tend to think of inverted mysteries as being exercises in sustaining tension. In my experience so far the killer truly believes that they might escape justice and even achieve happiness until the final chapter of the novel and sometimes the punishment is not shown but simply the inevitable consequence of what has transpired as in this book as here. In some cases, such as in Freeman Wills Crofts’ 12:30 From Croydon the detective has been working all the way in the background and while we can imply that, the killer ignores the signs.

      Occasionally you do get a longer explanation but I have yet to find an example that I think is successful. Antidote to Venom is a great case in point. We already know what has happened so French’s explanation only rehashes things.

      Liked by 1 person

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