Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Originally published in 1931
Inspector Kane #3
Preceded by The Back Bay Murders
Followed by Murder Among the Angells

Martin Greenough’s walled-off mansion is the last remaining holdout in the Boston parkland known as the Fenway―and the fact that it eluded condemnation by the city is a testament to the elderly bachelor’s great wealth. Childless and nearing the end of his life, he surrounds himself with only his cat, his servants, and a friend, Mrs. Warden―to say nothing of the circle of extended family members whose lives he both subsidizes and rules from afar, the nieces and nephews who all seem to be more fond of Uncle Mart’s money than they are of his character.

On the eve of his birthday, Greenough requests the presence of his heirs at his home, insisting that he has something important to discuss. Before that discussion can take place, though, the man is murdered in his study. In one way or another nearly everyone there would benefit by his death, and none gathered seem terribly upset by it, so finding the culprit is no easy task for Inspector Kane of the Boston PD. But as he untangles the threads and unburies dark family secrets, the discovery of a bizarre clue might hold the key to solving the crime.

Cover and blurb from 2022 reprint from Penzler Publishing

A few weeks ago I happened to learn that The Mysterious Bookstore offers a monthly subscription deal where you can get the latest volume from their American Mystery Classics range shipped direct to your home. As this information happened to reach me within moments of me receiving a paycheck, I quickly succumbed to the inevitable and placed my order and I was pleased when I returned home yesterday to find a copy of Cat’s Paw waiting for me. Accordingly all plans to review some of those three or four books I read last week went out the window as this went straight to the top of the TBR pile and I found myself polishing it off in an evening.

The novel was the third of a small handful of books written by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair under the name of Roger Scarlett during the early 1930s. It is a traditional detective story concerning the murder of a wealthy man during his birthday festivities at his mansion. That was exactly the sort of book I was looking to read so I was excited to give it a try and see if I could solve the puzzle.

The victim is Mart Greenough, a septugenarian bachelor who is frequently visited by his extended family members, all of whom hope to benefit from his will. Mart is, perhaps to their frustration, in pretty good health. With his birthday approaching he decides that he will host a party to share some personal news with those relatives. That news shocks and appalls his family members and before the night is out he is found shot dead by the windows of his study.

Mart’s death occurs relatively late in the novel which gives us plenty of time to get to know our victim. While he certainly exhibits some fussy, controlling and difficult behavior, I felt he was an entertaining character to spend time with and I enjoyed getting to know him and understand his relationships with the suspects.

It doesn’t take us long to start to get to know his guests and to learn some details of the secrets they have been keeping that could lead to murder. One aspect of this that I appreciated was that those reasons feel surprisingly varied, making for a much richer reading experience. I enjoyed observing these characters’ behaviors to try and spot clues as to what their issues were likely to be and I similarly enjoyed the circumstances in which several of them are exposed. There is a great sense of discovery in the chapters leading up to the murder, giving the piece a nice pace.

Pacing is one of the strengths of this book in general thanks to a structural decision to tell this story by following the action during the party, presenting information to the reader in an informed third person narration, rather than have it be discovered through questioning. This choice encourages the reader to become more engaged with the narrative, looking for clues as to where the story may be headed, and also allows some of those secrets to emerge quite naturally in moments of conflict rather than simply being discovered during the investigation. My only issue with this approach is that the short first chapter, in which we meet the investigators and learn about the status of the murder case, feels largely redundant and adds little to our ultimate understanding of what is going on, particularly given how long it will be until we meet those characters again.

Turning to the circumstances of the murder themselves, the crime scene is relatively simple. The time of death is quickly established, as is the murder weapon meaning we can devote our attention pretty much exclusively to the question of who committed the crime. As I note above, the murder takes place after we learn most of the characters’ secrets and have observed their behavior so we do not have much evidence to gather – rather our task is to piece together what we have and to draw logical inferences from it.

I particularly appreciate the sequence of events leading up to the discovery of the body, starting with Mart’s announcement to his family members. After chapters of build-up we see how the circumstances for murder seem to be aligning. It certainly helps to build anticipation for that moment and I thoroughly enjoyed looking for clues in the next few chapters as we follow our suspects right up to the point that the body is discovered.

The investigation that follows is relatively brief, reflecting that we already know many of the facts of the case by this stage. Inspector Kane, having learned the facts of the case, proceeds to walk us logically through them, helping the reader see how they are connected and what inferences can be made from them. It’s pretty well done, though one consequence of this approach is that the detectives themselves didn’t make much of an impression on me. I would be curious to see if the previous volumes had devoted a little more time to developing these characters.

I think the authors do a good job of creating a solution that feels clued and logical, though I must note that I was not entirely convinced by the motive (though I accept the authors do play fair and properly set it up). I admired the construction of the puzzle overall however, particularly the way in which the authors pull off a great final page reveal that will provide a nice, punchy finish for those who don’t see the solution coming.

The Verdict: An entertaining puzzle-driven detective story, that plays fair and is told in a pretty engaging way. Another very solid entry in the American Mystery Classics range that leaves me curious to try some of the authors’ other works.


4 thoughts on “Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

  1. I was fortunate enough to get the Coachwhip reissues of the Roger Scarlett books and thoroughly enjoyed them, so I’m glad you got something out of this. Kane is something of an enigma, being very much the detective presence ushered in to a mansion in which murder has been committed — the focus being far more on the denizens and suspects than on the policemen…and, yes, the investigations can be a little undersold, but I think that’s in part the American School of this type of novel never quite getting to grips with the British trappings of GAD.

    That, however, is an essay for another time. The others in this series are certainly worth tracking down, see my reviews for more details.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve got the Coachwhip omnibus too, though I got it more for Murder Among the Angels. I’d always heard that Cat’s Paw was marred by some uneven clueing, so your singling out the fair play aspect is really encouraging. I look forward to reading this with renewed vigor!

    Like

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