A very solid puzzle mystery offering plenty of suspects. The ending may not shock but I enjoyed the process of reaching it.
Originally published in 1941
George Honegger #1
Followed by All Men Are Liars
The death of Simeon Rede, an elderly invalid, came as no surprise to his lovely young wife and his daughter, who had long anticipated a heart attack. However, the combination of a stolen bracelet and a discharged maid, through a strange chain of circumstances, arouses suspicion in Police Inspector Honegger. Further investigation confirmed his suspicion of Rede’s murder. Unfortunately, the Rede family was an involved one and its associations many, and Honegger found himself with a surfeit of suspects. Here is one of the most cleverly plotted and ably characterized mystery stories of the present day – a story that will be read and discussed with enthusiasm for many months to come.
One of the things I love most about my vintage crime fiction hobby is that feeling you get when you try a new author for the first time, particularly when they are someone you haven’t heard of before. There’s a sense of excited curiosity about what may lie in store, elevated when you come to them with little to no knowledge at all. That was the case with Murder Gives a Lovely Light and its author, John Stephen Strange (actually Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett) which was part of a stack of Crime Club hardcovers I received as a gift from my very thoughtful wife.
Simeon Rede had been a successful investment broker until a financial scandal involving one of his employees threatened his reputation. Though he handled the crisis with strength and determination, making up missing funds out of his own pocket, the stresses took their toll, causing serious heart issues that nearly killed him and leaving him an invalid.
It therefore comes as little surprise to his wife or daughter when, after returning from the opera, they find him dead from the heart attack they had anticipated since that day. When the police receive an anonymous note alleging that Rede’s wife had poisoned his nightly Ovaltine, Lieutenant Honegger decides that the matter merits closer examination and soon learns that there were a number of people who might benefit from his death…
The reader is ahead of Honegger in that respect as Strange carefully introduces them to each of the characters prior to Rede’s death and supplies their reasons. Some are quite obviously stated, others might be inferred, but before long we have a pretty large cast of possible suspects ranging from members of his household to friends and a former business partner.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about the size of that cast of characters. On the positive side, they are sufficiently well-defined that I had no difficulty remembering who each was and the nature of their relationship to Rede. I similarly appreciated that the motives this sets up for each feel varied and I also really liked that our victim was presented in a largely favorable light with almost everyone speaking well of him. In fact I found I liked him all the more as the novel went on which is unusual for the victim.
The more negative aspect of this large cast is that there are several characters who, though defined, have little presence within the story which seems to discount them as possible murderers. I think the story might have benefited a little from trimming some of those characters’ involvement to add greater depth to others but even when a character could be discounted as a suspect, they often contributed to the plot in other ways making it hard to pinpoint where the cuts could have been made most easily.
Perhaps the least defined significant character is the detective, George Honegger. I felt that we get a very good sense of his investigative style and personality, particularly in the way he pursues this case when there is clearly political pressure on him to abandon it. Other than the brief appearance of a wife, I felt there was little sense of the character beyond his professional responsibilities.
Fortunately this is the sort of case that suits that focus on method and work rate rather than the investigator’s personality. For one thing, progress is shown to be slow and the investigation unfolds over a number of weeks – often interrupted by other cases Honegger finds himself assigned to work. Perhaps the most striking aspect of it is that the investigation occurs in spite of having little physical evidence to justify it. Indeed, we only really get something approaching proof that Rede was murdered in the last third of the novel and several stages of the investigation are defined by their lack of a piece of evidence rather than an object that has been found or a piece of witness testimony.
I enjoyed the process of following Honegger as he explores the limited evidence he has and tries to extract information from a group of individuals who initially seem to resist the notion that a murder has taken place at all. There is some nice organizational detail as we hear about the tails he puts on suspects and a second murder adds considerable interest later in the novel.
The solution did not surprise me – I had pegged the murderer from close to the start of the book based on some structural choices – but I appreciated that there were clues that I missed, one of which struck me as rather clever. I was particularly pleased that everything struck me as being properly clued when the truth was revealed, making the conclusion feel really quite tidy. Those who want to be surprised might be disappointed, but it does hang together very well.
Overall I am happy to say that my first encounter with John Stephen Strange was a rather good one. I had little challenge staying engaged with the investigation, finishing it in a single sitting. I am curious to try more of her work so I doubt this will be the last you’ll read about her work here.
Have you read anything by John Stephen Strange? I would, as always, appreciate your thoughts and recommendations.