Originally published in 1932.
Dr Hailey #14.
Preceded by The White Arrow.
Followed by Case of the Red-Haired Girl.
“It’s a chance between murder which cannot have taken place and suicide, the manner of which is doubtful,” Mary said, when Sir Dyce Chalfont was found lying on his back, a green-handled knife gripped securely in his hand. At first the reader has a feeling it served him right ; Sir Dyce had a cruel streak in his nature – but – MURDER!
And then more murders – one, two, three of them – and all the while Dr. Hailey is probing every nook and corner. For him the green knife possessed a special and strange significance, and because of this he was able to solve as perplexing a mystery as ever found its way between the covers of a book.
The subject of today’s post is the book I thought that I had left at work (see my last post for more on that). Well, I was delighted to find it had just slid under the passenger seat in my car which means that I will get to write about it sooner. This is welcome as this book gives me PLENTY to want to write about.
Dr. Hailey is visited by a young woman who he met while caring for the fantastically wealthy Sir Dyce Chalfont the previous year. She asks if he will visit him to intercede on her behalf to help her avoid financial ruin after a speculation threatens to ruin her. Hailey agrees but finds Chalfont will not budge. A short while later screams are heard coming from his bedroom which is found locked with a barricade set up behind the door.
When the door is forced Chalfont is found dead with a stab wound in the back of his shoulder and a green knife lies nearby. The windows are bolted and a search produces no secret passage or hidden compartment. Unlikely as it seems, suicide seems to be the likely conclusion but then the impossible scene repeats itself another two times…
Of course the first place to start in discussing the novel is that impossibility. The scenario Wynne creates is wonderfully puzzling because it feels so complete. Every possible entrance to the room just seems to be accounted for as do everyone’s movements. Throw in the repetition and it becomes even more baffling.
Like TomCat whose excellent review is linked to below, I was perplexed by the question of how the murderer managed to get away each time. I certainly got nowhere near the solution myself!
This book was the fourteenth to feature Wynne’s sleuth, Dr. Hailey. While we spend quite a lot of time in his company, I did not feel that I knew much about him other than he was old, a little weak physically and that he has a fairly quiet demeanor, at least in comparison with the character more formally investigating the murders. Given that the character had been well established by this point, it may be that Wynne presumed readers already were familiar with him though it may reflect that he is more interested in the situation he creates than his characters.
The best comparison I could think of would be Rhodes’ Dr. Priestley in some of his earlier cases, though Hailey is a little more active and empathic towards the people involved in the case. He asks an occasional question, ventures some possible interpretations of evidence, but rarely dominates the proceedings except in the final couple of chapters and a thrilling sequence in which he finds himself trapped in the dark.
While Wynne’s plot is intriguing in a mechanical sense, unfortunately the psychological and character elements are simply not anyway near as satisfying.
A huge part of the story hinges on Chalfont’s mental state particularly in relation to his marriage to his young wife and questions he may have had about his child’s paternity. Certainly those questions hang over much of the story and Wynne tries to deal with them in a much more frank and psychological way than I might expect of a book published in 1932.
The problem is that some of that supposed analysis just makes no sense at all. One idea that particularly baffled me is that Chalfont may have disinherited his wife and willed his fortunes to the man he believed cuckolded him because he believed that man would be more likely to have his child’s best interests at heart. No amount of earnest discussions among learned authority figures could possibly convince me that makes sense yet it is returned to on several occasions.
Generally speaking the characterizations struck me as flat with few characters making much of an impression on me. Indeed there were a couple I struggled to distinguish, often having to flick back a few pages to remind myself of who they were. Pretty impressive given how small this cast of characters is.
The other issue that the novel has is one of pacing, particularly in the section of the novel between the third murder and Hailey accusing the murderer. On the one hand there is something to be said for the thorough way in which Wynne works through each possible explanation to discount it but I couldn’t help but think some could have been presented in a much more compact or at least more entertaining way.
Things thankfully liven up in the final couple of chapters as Dr. Hailey presents his case. I would argue that there are still aspects of these chapters that are needlessly drawn out – his efforts to answer and provide proof on several supporting questions – but there is a sense of movement and the key question is so baffling that I was desperate to know how it was worked.
Happily in this respect Wynne delivers, providing the reader with a clever method of killing that I think is pretty well clued although I can’t imagine beating Hailey to that solution. The reader may have to stretch their disbelief that the killer could pull off their trick several times over. Still, once Hailey begins to explain I could see all of the connections including a few Wynne never spells out clearly himself.
That is not to say however that every aspect of the ending satisfies. One of the biggest problems with the book is that the evidence for the killer’s identity is purely circumstantial. Basically the killer will give in at a point where they still had a pretty good chance to make a go of it. It isn’t a disastrous way to end the novel but it is an underwhelming one, particularly given ingenuity of the crime itself.
While I was disappointed by some aspects of the prose and character development, I was impressed by the solid plot construction and – in particular – the cunning impossible murders. This was my first encounter with Wynne and I am likely to have at least one more as I own a copy of Murder of a Lady which was released a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Just don’t expect me to rush to read it…
The Verdict: The setup of the impossibility is quite marvellous – shame that the other aspects of the novel keep it from being as entertaining as it should be.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time offers some praise for the impossibilities but notes that the overwrought writing and characterizations will be a barrier for many readers.