Originally published in 1947
Doctor Manson #6
Preceded by It’s Murder to Live!
Followed by John Klyeing Died
Norma de Grey, the Principal in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington, was not popular with the rest of the Pavilion Theatre company. But was she hated enough to be killed by prussic acid, during the performance itself?
Suspicion immediately falls on the Cat, her fellow actor in the fatal scene. Until it transpires that the Cat too has been poisoned – and his understudy has a solid alibi. But someone must have donned the disguise and appeared on stage incognito. Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, analytical detective par excellence, is on the case.
Last year I read and reviewed The Heel of Achilles, an inverted mystery written by the Radfords and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact I even ended up selecting it as one of my nominations for the Reprint of the Year Awards. There was no doubt in my mind then that I’d be back for more. The only question was which book I’d select.
Who Killed Dick Whittington? is set against the backdrop of a British festive institution – the Christmas pantomime – though this is not really a seasonal read. As the title of the novel suggests, the pantomime in question is an adaptation of the story of Dick Whittington in which a boy travels to London to seek his fortune and ends up becoming Mayor of London. The production is doing steady business in spite of lacking a star name, helped by a lack of competition. That is not to say however that there isn’t a difficult lead actor – nobody in the company seems to have anything positive to say of Norma de Grey, the young actress playing the role.
Little surprise then when she ends up dead, though the circumstances are somewhat odd. In the scene before the interval Dick and his cat, played by an actor in a fur suit, lie down for a nap while the fairies perform a ballet. When the time comes for Dick to wake and deliver the final line in the act it never comes. The curtain falls and when the crew investigate they find her unconscious. The first-aid man quickly examines her and tells the gathered crowd that he thinks she is dead.
Examination reveals that Norma was poisoned and that it must have taken place during on stage as the poison, prussic acid, would have worked in seconds. The only person who went near her was the actor playing the Cat – the problem is that both that actor and his understudy have pretty solid alibis…
This book is listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders (an invaluable reference guide for locked room and impossible crime stories) but I cannot really understand the reason for its inclusion. After all, it seems pretty clear from early in the case exactly how the poison had been administered – the mystery really lies in the who and the reasons why. I’d suggest setting aside any expectations of an impossibility and instead enjoy what is a rather beautifully crafted piece of fair-play forensic detection.
According to Nigel Moss’ excellent introduction, which can be found in the recent Dean Street Press reprint, both Radfords had some prior professional engagement with the theater – Mona had acted and written for the stage while Edwin had been an Arts journalist. The authors clearly drew upon that experience to create a representation of a theatrical company that feels both detailed and credible. Whether it is describing the contents of a dressing room, backstage movements or capturing the professional jealousies within the company, it is easy to be drawn into the theatrical setting presented here.
In addition to this main investigation, the Radfords also provide a secondary investigation that is already underway at the start of the novel. This case, which involves trying to prove whether a series of fires at commercial properties were accidents or arson, is less colorful and lacks the color found in the theatrical setting but it is interesting enough, particularly once we learn how these two cases are connected (though it is perhaps unbelievably fortunate that Manson is assigned to both).
For those unfamiliar with Doctor Manson, he is a scientist in the manner of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke. Guided entirely by evidence rather than psychology, he is observant, methodical and detailed in the way he approaches picking apart a crime. He is perhaps a shade warmer than Thorndyke, possessing a sense of humor, though he can also be quite fussy and sharp in conversation with colleagues. Crucially for us as readers, he takes the time to explain any relevant piece of science in such a way as to make it approachable and easy to understand, meaning that the reader can expect a fair challenge.
Which is exactly what we get here. In fact we get three of them as, prior to the final challenge to the reader, there are two previous challenges where the authors pose questions about the relevance of some point Doctor Manson has asked. Each of these were quite specific in the information sought and I agree with the authors that in each case the reader ought to be able to guess the relevance of each point, making for a particularly rewarding reading experience for armchair sleuths.
In addition to these logical games, the book contains a significant amount of forensic analysis explained in pretty straightforward, if occasionally somewhat dry, English. The science is easy to follow and I was surprised at how exciting I found a few of the tests that get described. Of particular interest for me was an experiment that involved weighing some ash (I will let you discover the reasons Manson engages in this activity for yourself).
While the forensics are important to the book in terms of discovering evidence, I think that it is important to stress that the solution is found through the application of logic. Each thread is connected at the end with the links between each piece of evidence clearly explained in a newspaper account of a trial.
I was not particularly surprised by the solutions – the Radfords clue the mystery well enough that I felt confident long before the final challenge was issued that I knew who had done the crimes and even why. The greater challenge for me was in figuring out exactly how Dr. Manson would prove his case. At least one aspect of the solution completed eluded me in spite of how incredibly obvious it was which is pretty much all I want from a detective story. I want to be fooled by something that is so simple I really ought to have seen it coming. As I wrote in my Kindle notes (it’s in all caps because I was clearly quite excited):
Which I think speaks to why I ended up enjoying this so much. It is a clever, well clued mystery that plays fair with its readers. Though the writing style can be a little dry and awkward in a few of the technical forensic passages, I found the science fascinating and I loved following along as Manson pieced it all together and trying to beat the challenges. Highly recommended.
The Verdict: An excellent fair-play puzzle mystery, enhanced by its colorful theatrical setting.