Originally published 1954
Rosemary Lennox is a happy, bright young lady who’s lucky enough to have her close friends around her. However, after a wonderful night out with her boyfriend, Rosemary comes home through a thick and terrifying fog to find her best friend and neighbour, Mary Francis murdered…
John Francis, Mary’s husband, is distraught over the loss of his beloved wife. Although their relationship could be tempestuous as times, they loved each other dearly and he becomes lost without her. But he was the last to see her alive and admits that they had a row immediately prior to her death.
John seems close to breaking point and is soon found dead from apparent suicide by gas inhalation. Was he hiding a guilty conscience? The evidence doesn’t seem to add up. In fact, the evidence seems to be pointing to a few people…
Rosemary must try not to lose her way as she sets about uncovering the culprit, but she’s determined to get justice for Mary…
It seems kind of crazy to say this since we are still basically stuck at home but this promises to be quite a busy week for me. With lots on my plate I felt it would be wise to pick a shorter work for my midweek read, particularly as my concentration levels have been a little lacking of late.
I have been meaning to return to the works of John Russell Fearn ever since I read Except for One Thing, an inverted mystery. When I saw this novella pop up on my Kindle Unlimited recommendations it seemed to be exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. So, what’s it about?
Rosemary is looking forward to a date with her boss but they have to rethink their plans when a thick fog sets in. Rather than cancel they decide to have dinner and then catch a train home. Working her way through the thick fog she eventually finds the building she lives in and enters, noticing one of her neighbor’s doors is open. She enters and discovers her neighbor Mary lying dead on the floor.
Mary’s husband John becomes the chief suspect, particularly as he had a fight with Mary earlier that day. When he is found dead with his head in the oven the assumption is suicide but evidence from the autopsy makes it clear that it was murder and the killer must still be at large…
As I read the first chapter of this book I was put a little in mind of Richard Harding Davis’ novella Into the Fog. Fearn’s fog may not last nearly as long (just a few paragraphs) but he very effectively communicates how disorienting it is and it similarly prompts a somewhat heightened emotional state prior to discovering a body. As openings go, this quickly grabbed my attention and I was curious to see where the tale would go.
Lonely Road Murder is perhaps best described as a crime story or psychological thriller rather than a detective story. While there is a formal investigation into the novella’s two murders, it is conducted largely in the background and we never really get to know Inspector Nevil very well. Our protagonist’s efforts are really limited to just one interview and the focus is never really on the evidence – indeed some key pieces of evidence are not really disclosed to the reader until after the killer has been revealed.
Instead Fearn’s focus is on exploring Rosemary’s mental state, the way she responds to these unsettling experiences and the suspicions she begins to form of her friends and neighbors. This is done quite effectively and I felt that Fearn did a good job of slowly building that tension before delivering a solid, if unsurprising, payoff.
While I found reading this to be an enjoyable experience, there are a couple of issues with the book that keep me from enthusiastically recommending it. The first of these are the romantic elements of the story which feel somewhat stilted and a little dated, even for the period in which it was written. Given how central the romantic elements are to Fearn’s story both in terms of thematic and plot construction, I found the depiction of the relationships to be curiously passionless. As a result the piece didn’t connect with me as emotionally as it might have done.
The other aspect of the novel that disappointed me was the reveal of the killer. This is not because I have an issue with the character chosen (though the writing of that character after the reveal strikes me as a rather sharp turn, stretching credibility for me) but rather a reflection of how passive I felt each of the characters was leading into that moment including the killer themselves.
It struck me that the book ends not because the mystery is entering a natural final stage but because it has reached a high point psychologically. Now, that is understandably the priority for this sort of book but I do think that a resolution might have been crafted which could have managed to satisfy in both regards.
In his excellent review at Beneath the Stains of Time, TomCat emphasizes that this is an unusual work for Fearn and does not recommend it for those new to the author. I enjoyed it more, finding it a diverting read that, thanks to its brief page count, never outstayed its welcome for me. I do look forward to returning to Fearn in the not-too-distant future and trying one of his other, more recommended works to get a better sense of what he was really capable of.
The Verdict: This solid psychological crime novella lacks surprises but hooked me with an atmospheric opening.