Richard Harvey is a wealthy and prominent research chemist who for the past two years has been secretly engaged to Valerie Hadfield, a leading actress. The secrecy was necessary because of a non-marriage clause in her contract but as she is about to start a new role they should soon be able to make their relationship public.
The problem is that Richard wants out. As time has passed he has come to realize that he was more attracted to the character she was on stage than to the real woman who can be ‘cold, hard, and carved out of a glacier’. He has met and fallen in love with another woman, Joyce, and he wants to marry her instead. He meets with Valerie to ask her to drop the engagement but she insists that he will go ahead or else she will make his love letters public and expose him for breach of promise.
Richard isn’t prepared to deal with scandal and he is perceptive enough to realize that Valerie will not compromise or be bought off. He soon decides that murder is the only solution to his problem but having worked with Scotland Yard he is all too aware of how easily murderers can be discovered and does not wish to become another Dr. Crippen. He resolves that he will carry out the perfect crime and sets about not only working out a way to carry out the murder but also a plan to avoid leaving any forensic evidence that will lead back to himself.
Yes, we are in inverted territory and our killer’s motive is that he wants to free himself to pursue another woman. Fearn’s novel presents us with an interesting twist on that formula however because his killer has a relationship with the police. Richard, we learn, often works with Scotland Yard on their cases in a consulting capacity and is even a friend of the man who will investigate this case, Inspector Garth. He is able to use his knowledge of police procedure and that relationship with Garth and this adds a slightly different dimension that turns the second half of the novel into a sort of cat-and-mouse game between killer and detective as Richard uses his knowledge of the investigation to stay one step ahead.
This twist to the inverted formula works nicely and lends a touch of originality to a plot that otherwise might seem quite familiar. Indeed, when Richard declares “I’ve planned a perfect crime” (he really does say that to his victim) the reader may be forgiven for seeing what is particularly noteworthy about his efforts. Yes, there is an attention to detail and an awareness of the things that the Police might look for such as fingerprints or those incriminating letters but for much of the novel it is hard to see where the genius of this crime lies.
I do think that there are some effective ideas here, even if Fearn does keep some back until close to the end of the novel. There is one image or idea that I found to be particularly effective and unsettling, making the ending feel gritty and a little grotesque in the best possible way.
I was less impressed with the characterizations of both Richard and Garth, each of whom struck me as a little bland were it not for their relationship with each other. For instance, we are told that Richard is brilliant and yet the murder he plans feels grounded in practicalities. Similarly Garth is solid and diligent but while there is talk about his friendship with Richard complicating the case, he seems pretty solidly on the side of exposing the truth throughout the story.
So if this is not an interesting psychological exploration of a killer or an exploration of a particularly unusual or creative murder, where does the appeal lie? It is in seeing those two characters interacting with each other and in trying to predict how Garth will best Richard and expose the truth. Part of this requires us to understand exactly what Richard’s plan was but we also have to discern where the loose threads are and how he may have made matters worse in his bumbling attempts to cover his tracks.
This final phase of the novel is, in my opinion, its most effective. Our knowledge of the two characters’ actions helps to generate suspense as we understand how they are each feeling about different aspects of the case and are aware of the disconnect between what they are saying and what they are thinking.
The ending is powerful and I feel sure it will stick with me for some time to come but as much as it satisfied me I cannot overlook that I was underwhelmed by the description of the crime itself and the apparent simplicity of Richard’s plan. Fearn keeps back his richest and most distinctive material until his final few chapters which I think is a shame as without those elements the crime feels underwhelming.
Except for One Thing was originally published under the pseudonym Hugo Blayn.