Originally Published 1930
Sir Adam Braid, the distinguished artist, was a cantankerous old man. Not well-liked by most of his family and associates, he was about to add one more enemy to the list by changing his will … but not before death paid a visit to his London flat, and Sir Adam was found stabbed through the neck.
Chief-Inspector Fenn takes charge of the case and soon notices the butler seems more frightened than shocked – but what if anything, did the butler do? After all, there is a plethora of suspects, including mercenary relatives and some curious occupants of the neighbouring flats. Fenn must put the clues together, and bring a murderer to justice in this classic golden age mystery.
The Case of Sir Adam Braid is the third Molly Thynne mystery I have read and I must confess that having enjoyed my previous two experiences I am surprised it has taken me so long to return to her. This novel was written earlier than either of those novels and is the last of her standalone mysteries.
The case concerns the murder of an artist, Sir Adam Braid, in his flat one night. His servant had left him listening to the wireless while he went out for a drink. When he returns he discovers Sir Adam in his chair with a deep knife wound in the back of his neck.
The puzzle is logistically quite complex with the key questions being the time of death and how could someone gain access to a supposedly locked flat. Sir Adam’s manservant claims that he left his master alone with the door locked yet several witnesses claim to have heard Sir Adam talking with a man and a woman during the time he was gone. As the investigation progresses the reader acquires information about characters’ movements and has to piece them together to work out who had opportunity.
Thynne provides us with several suspects, many of whom reside in the building. Their motivations are often quite weak however and the reader will quickly whittle down their suspects list to just a few names.
One name that we are repeated told won’t be on it is Sir Adam’s niece Jill, though the evidence against her seems quite compelling. For one thing, while she was supposed to inherit his fortune, Sir Adam had taken offence at her request for an advance on that inheritance and planned to cut her out of his will completely. He dies before he can carry out his intentions and so the fortune would still go to her in its entirety, significantly easing her money difficulties.
The reason that Jill is not to be seriously considered will be quite familiar to Golden Age readers – she is initially presented to us as sweet and incapable of murder by our two detective characters, clearly establishing her to be one of the novel’s romantic leads. Both characters are certain of her innocence in spite of the facts and so proving that she did not do it will become their priority. This device is quite charming and yet I was struck by the feeling that while it adds some tension to the story they are assuming a lot based on appearances and demeanor.
Kate at CrossExaminingCrime puts this really well in her review where she talks about the role prejudices play in this narrative. Jill cannot be guilty because she is attractive and, even when things look bleak for her, the two detective characters are predisposed to believe her or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. Other characters are immediately identified as being sketchy or not to be trusted and the two detectives’ hunches usually prove to be correct.
Though it can be a little frustrating to find that the characters do not exhibit much in the way of hidden depths or facets, I enjoyed discovering their roles in the mystery and how they responded to coming under suspicion. While I felt fairly confident of the guilty party based on their personality, working out the mechanics of how they committed it took me longer.
While Fenn cuts quite a bland figure conveying competency but not a lot of personality, Thynne does invest some time in building up the character of Dr. Gilroy, establishing him as likeable and energetic in his pursuit of the truth as well as a keen advocate for Jill. At a few points Thynne has her two investigators adopt different approaches to the case and I appreciated that Gilroy is able to take some actions that Fenn cannot because of his need to adhere to Police rules and protocol.
Unfortunately while I found the investigation entertaining, the revelation of the motive behind the crime disappoints. I think part of the reason that it was so easy to narrow down the suspects is that only a handful have clear motives for committing the crime. Add in that we are repeatedly assured that we should not suspect Jill and really only two figures remain. I do think it is a little disappointing to identify the killer through process of elimination based on motive rather than by piecing other clues together and so I think this is the weakest aspect of the novel.
Happily I felt the logistical puzzle element of the novel was much more effective. While I think one aspect of the solution will likely be easily identified by seasoned detective fiction readers long before Chief-Inspector Fenn thinks of it, it is still enjoyable to see how he is able to piece the various facts together. Fans of the plodding, diligent style of detective will likely appreciate the attention paid to the serial numbers of banknotes, the faintness of carpet impressions and the reconciliation of alibis.
Although I do not think this mystery is as entertaining as The Crime at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, which remains my favorite of the Thynnes I have read so far, I do think this book’s plot is very cleverly and tidily constructed. In the end though that tidiness keeps it from ever truly surprising the reader. Perhaps if the killer’s motivations had been a little more complex or unexpected it might have given the conclusion a little extra lift or added excitement. Still, for those in search of a solid and entertaining puzzle mystery I think this does deliver enough to make it worth seeking out.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In a Locked Room (Where)