From among a brilliant galaxy of Senators, Representatives, Diplomats, Governors, artists, society women, wealthy aristocrats, and influential newspaper publishers of Washington D.C. – a wealthy Congressman disappeared almost before their eyes, during the progress of one of his wife’s famous Sunday night suppers.
Inspector Jacks of New York had hardly started work on the case when there was an even stranger disappearance. How he wove a cunning web into which he drew many unsuspecting human flies and finally a diabolical pair that buzzed too long around the scene of their crime, is the high water mark of a most unique and blood-curdling mystery tale.
I was really excited to get hold of The Capital City Mystery a few months ago as it completed my collection of James Harold Wallis’ detective stories. These books have been largely forgotten but I have found each of the ones I have read interesting, even if they were not always entirely successful. This is one of his earliest efforts featuring his series detective, Inspector Jacks – an independently wealthy police detective from New York.
Each week US Representative Lester Armaude and his wife Lily host Sunday supper parties for their friends and neighbors who are a mix of politicians, news publishers and other dignitaries. This week is no different, although a heavy fog does mean that the gathering is expected to be a little smaller than usual. Anticipating the arrival of a colleague, Lester decides to walk down to unlock a side gate and wait to greet them. Guests begin to arrive but Lester does not return and when the visitors he was waiting for arrive and say they didn’t see him, a small search is mounted and while his pen is found, Lester is nowhere to be seen.
While his wife seems initially unconcerned by the absence, the next day she receives a telegram purporting to be from Lester in which he explains his absence. Rather than settling the matter, the note instead makes her suspicious as there is a telltale sign that it would not be from him. Fearing kidnap but daring not to go to the Police and cause a scandal, Lily’s house guest Lais suggests that they reach out to Inspector Jacks from New York who she met when he investigated her ‘trouble’ three years earlier (the events of the previous novel, Murder by Formula) and who can be trusted to be discrete. He agrees to take some leave and visit to look into the matter for them.
A deeper investigation of the scene only seems to confirm their suspicions that something sinister has happened and leads to a more formal investigation taking place. With no trace or sightings of him anywhere, the question is where could he have vanished to and for what purpose. And then another character disappears without a trace…
While the mechanism for involving Jacks in this capital-centered case is a little contrived, I found Wallis’ setup for this story and, in particular, the political aspects of the story to be quite intriguing. One common trick Wallis used in several of his setective stories is to have characters discuss the potential for a crime in an apparently hypothetical way that subsequently turns out to be rather prescient. Here we have just such a case where characters’ comments about the potential for murder are used to set the mood and prepare us for what we know must surely have happened, even in the absence of a corpse.
Wallis would have been familiar with the world of Washington from his experience working with Herbert Hoover as a special assistant when he was serving as Secretary of State. He also had some personal political experience both from his own time in local government and as a newspaper owner. All of that knowledge and detail is there on the page, making this depiction of the capital feel well-observed with plenty of references to actual political figures and legislative debates that would have been fairly recent as well as comments on some of the locations and neighborhoods around the District of Columbia. All of the figures involved in this case however are fictional (including the President), allowing for the possibility that anything might happen to them.
This attention to the details of the setting and the characters that inhabit it is easily the most successful and interesting part of The Capital City Mystery. The pool of suspects is drawn from those characters who attended the Armaudes’ party, with the exception of Lais who is clearly established as the romantic interest for Jacks (this does feel pretty convincing and clearly evolves out of the circumstances of the previous book). This means that the suspects are all from Washington’s high society, leading Jacks to move in some relatively high circles. Wallis explains the tensions between the various suspects well and while carrying out an abduction or murder might seem to be a high risk endeavor, I had little difficulty accepting their possible motives for doing so.
Perhaps the most striking of the various suspects is Tonescu, a diplomat from one of the Balkan countries (Wallis avoids being too specific). What makes Tonescu memorable is his willingness to embrace a sort of blunt materialism where he makes no pretense about what he wants. This apparent honesty about his interest in Lily Armaude as well as his willingness to admit involvement in a previous murder (which describes in just a few lines an idea that Christie would use as the solution to a novel a couple of years later), makes him a difficult character to fully grasp and understand for much of the book and yet he plays off Jacks superbly.
Wallis’ only slight misstep on the characterization front is the character of Gaiety Joy, an out of work jester who Jacks encounters in a diner and hires to be his eyes and ears. This mechanism of hiring a surrogate is a decent one that has been used very effectively elsewhere, yet Joy is a rather odd character and as useful as he proves it is hard to understand exactly what causes Jacks to be willing to make the investment in him. There is also a rather lengthy sequence in which Joy performs some political poetry that drags on a little too long. Still, the character does open up some interesting doors to the investigation later or and there is a rather amusing development involving a decision he takes shortly after being hired.
All of which brings me to the bigger question of the plot. I do think that the book starts with a really interesting scenario and I think that the solution given is quite a lot of fun, albeit quite a familiar one. I do have to note though that it is more thriller than detective story in the telling. While I think the reader can presume some answers, I don’t think they are given quite enough to prove anything themselves. This may frustrate some readers but I remained engaged and entertained by the various twists and turns the case goes on.
Overall then I found The Capital City Mystery to be an enjoyable read. While it may not have been a fair play mystery, I had little difficulty in working out who was responsible and their motives or in maintaining my interest. Still, in spite of that it is a fun journey packed with strong characters and, in my opinion, one of the better Inspector Jacks stories.
The Verdict: Not so much a fair play mystery as a thriller but the capital setting and the development of the cast of suspects is handled well.