In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis

Originally Published 1901

Since the time of Shakespeare, there has been no group in London more influential than the Grill Club. A secret society whose members are drawn from the rich and the poor, the Grill is blind to politics, ideology, and wealth. The only demands made of its members are secrecy and an open mind.

On a foggy night in 1897, an American diplomat tells three other club members of a recent night when he was lost in the London fog and heard a distant scream. Following the sound, he entered a strange house, where he discovered a man lying dead on a princess’s divan. The crime baffled Scotland Yard, but the men of the Grill Club will get to the bottom of it—no matter how long it takes.

In the Fog introduces us to The Grill, an incredibly exclusive club in London that has existed since the restoration. Four members who have never met each other before are sat around the dinner table making conversation while a fifth member, Sir Andrew, sits in an armchair absorbed in a mystery novel.

One of the diners points out Sir Andrew and notes that an important vote will be taking place in Parliament that day on the Navy Increase Bill. Sir Andrew’s support is thought to be critical in swaying other members and if he were to make it to the House it would almost certainly result in it passing. Keen to prevent this from happening the diner begins to recount the story of a mysterious event that took place in the thick London fog in the hope of attracting Sir Andrew’s attention long enough for him to miss that vote.

Richard Harding Davis structures his story by splitting it into three sections, each narrated by a different character. When the first narrator finishes his tale, another of the diners steps in to take his place by telling other tales that supposedly relate to that first one. Each time Sir Andrew’s curiosity gets the better of him as he wants to find out the truth about what happened.

This novella is driven by its plot, reading more like an adventure story or thriller than a detective tale, particularly in the second tale. Each of the narrators’ accounts are rich on incident and I did enjoy the way that they each fold back in on the others. Part of the fun is in anticipating how the story might be spun out by someone else and there are a few points in the third tale that are a little unexpected.

The book also contains some wonderfully evocative descriptions of what walking the streets of London in thick fog felt like. That helped me understand better what life was like a hundred years ago and how people could cope with just inches of visibility.

Davis’ characterization on the other hand feels quite slight with little time spent on developing the back stories of any character other than Sir Andrew (who is himself not the most complex of characters). By the time we reach the end of the book we understand a little about characters’ plans and goals in life but we get little sense about their interests beyond their desire to get in his cab. This struck me as a little disappointing and I found that I was wishing that the book were a little longer to give these characters a little more room to shine in that narrative.

In the Fog is often very entertaining and I really enjoyed its sense of wacky energy but looking at it as a mystery story it does have a problem derived from its tone and premise. From the start of the novella we are aware that the three narrators are playing a game and that their stories are fictional. This in no way damages the work as a comedy – in fact, it probably heightens it and elevates an element of the ending – but it means that the mystery element of the book feels a bit anticlimactic.

When viewed primarily as a comic work, In the Fog is quite charming and creative. It moves quickly and I enjoyed each of the three tales though the first is probably the richest and most intriguing. If you like stories in this style then I would certainly recommend taking a look at this – it is a really quick and entertaining story – but just be prepared that there is no puzzle here to solve.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a capital city (Where)

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