Originally published in 1941
Henry Gamadge #3
Preceded by Deadly Nightshade
Followed by The House Without the Door
One hundred years earlier, a beautiful guest had disappeared from the wealthy Vauregard household, along with the second volume in a set of the collected works of Byron. Improbably enough, both guest and book seem to have reappeared, with neither having aged a day. The elderly Mr. Vauregard is inclined to believe the young woman’s story of having vacationed on an astral plane. But his dubious niece calls in Henry Gamadge, gentleman-sleuth, expert in rare books, and sufficiently well-bred to avoid distressing the Vauregard sensibilities.
As Gamadge soon discovers, delicate sensibilities abound chez Vauregard, where the household includes an aging actress with ties to a spiritualist sect and a shy beauty with a shady (if crippled) fiance. As always in this delightful series, Gamadge comes up trumps, but only after careful study of the other players’ cards.
I love the premise of this mystery but sadly found that it never realizes its potential. There are better Gamadge stories than this.
Rare books expert and amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge receives a visit from a young woman who wants his help. Her uncle, Mr. Vauregard, is one of the wealthiest men in New York and, until recently, lived alone in their family home. He now has a young female ward who he insists is the same woman that family stories say disappeared from their walled back garden a hundred years earlier with the second volume in a set of the collected poetry of Byron. He believes that she has travelled on the astral plane, pointing to her period clothing and the book she carried with her which was one of a presentational set that was specially produced.
Gamadge immediately suspects that this is an imposter – the question is what they are hoping to gain and how they acquired the information and a seemingly authentic copy of the book necesssary to pull off this deception. Keen to avoid the indignity of a public scandal or offending their uncle, they hope Gamadge will be able to prove the fraud and enable them to handle the matter quietly.
After a brief investigation however Gamadge finds himself investigating a case of murder…
Before I get to talking about the details of this book I feel like I need to take a moment to address what this book is not. You see, the reason I picked this book to read this week was because it is featured in Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders with the entry describing the disappearance of the young woman from that garden a hundred years earlier. As I read however I found myself utterly baffled, not by the mystery itself but rather why it merited inclusion. Surely, I reasoned, I am going to find that the explanation entry will say that it’s not an impossibility at all.
It does not. After much thought and revisiting both the book and the entries several times I still cannot understand why Adey views this as a legitimate impossibility. For one thing, it is never really investigated at all in the course of the novel because it is irrelevant to the problem that Gamadge is attempting to solve. For another, we are talking about an event that essentially was unwitnessed and for which the only evidence is that no one ever saw the girl or the book again. Let me suggest that you really shouldn’t be reading this for the impossibility alone and accordingly I have decided not to categorize it as such here.
Of course it is not Elizabeth Daly’s fault that I read this book expecting something quite different than what I got so, putting that disappointment to one side, I am going to try to judge it on its own merits.
One of the problems of Gamadge is that his expertise and skillset is so specific that he can feel like a rather unlikely sleuth. I think this case though is a really credible one for him to become involved in. We have clients who see that the best avenue for convincing their uncle about the fraud is to disprove the authenticity of the book, not the woman. In addition to the rather technical points of that investigation however, we can see this in more human terms because there is the question of who orchestrated this deception and why. This, for me, was the most compelling aspect of the investigation – even once we have a body on our hands.
The murder occurs, as the title suggests, in the second of the novel’s three volumes and sends the investigation in a somewhat different direction. This is important for sustaining Gamadge’s involvement in the case – he is the first on the scene and recognizes that members of the family may need his help and advice – but the circumstances surrounding the murder itself are not particularly compelling.
Where the first section of the novel delves into family history and relationships, the material that follows this murder feels more focused on discovering motive and opportunity. The solution to what happened is rather uninspiring and is reached more through persistance, attempts to undermine alibis and a willingness to lay traps by dropping hints about what he knows. In short, those who are hoping for some solid detection are going to be disappointed as there is relatively little application of deductive reasoning here. I think it would be fair to say that Gamadge does not so much solve this case as he does stir things up before waiting to see where everything lands. That approach is fine for an adventure story but much less satisfying when read as detective fiction.
This is a shame because there is some material here that I think is interesting and relatively original. I really like the premise of someone disappearing and reappearing in exactly the same place years later having not aged a day, even if it is not really the focus here. It perhaps is not sufficient to sustain an entire novel but I find the idea appealing and would love to read a story that did it with a shorter timespan (perhaps a decade or two rather than a century) to allow for actual witnesses. I am sure it must exist so please feel free to let me know of any such titles in the comments.
I also enjoyed the cast of characters, several of whom are quite eccentric and theatrical. I think Daly does a solid job of establishing their distinct personalities and I could understand why Gamadge wants to protect them. Certainly their company is entertaining enough if you are reading this as an adventure but because Gamadge is protective of them, it frustrates that he never really applies pressure or closely questions anyone.
All of which is to say that I ultimately found Murders in Volume 2 to be a deeply underwhelming read, even if I was quite engaged for much of it. The central premise of the investigation holds some promise and feels quite unusual but there just isn’t enough payoff here to make the time spent with it worthwhile. There are better Daly novels out there.
J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books notes how this was out of print for years and declares he has solved the mystery of why. He has less patience for the discussion of Webster than I had but I broadly agree with his review.