The Chief Witness by Herbert Adams
The Chief Witness possesses a wonderful story hook. The novel begins with the death of two brothers, one a lawyer and one an accountant, who appear to have committed suicide at precisely the same time some miles apart. Immediate investigation reveals no notes and in each case a timepiece has been broken to record the time, something that seems suspicious.
Roger Bennion had been tagging along with Inspector Goff when he first examined the bodies and carried out some of his preliminary interviews. Later Margot, the daughter of one of the dead men, visits Bennion to plead with him to investigate the case and prove her boyfriend’s innocence as he has been arrested on suspicion of murder.
Before I go any further though let me step back to discuss the initial setup for the story. The idea of the mirroring of these two apparent suicides intrigues because we have to begin by trying to figure out the relationship between the two deaths. Were both genuine suicides in some sort of pact, were there two murders or was one a murder carried out with knowledge that the suicide had taken place? Part of the challenge Bennion and Goff face is that it is hard to find a single suspect with motives for killing both men given they had very different lines of work but it seems impossible that two identical crimes could be committed at the same time by two different people without knowledge of each others’ activities.
Bennion’s initial approach to the case is from the perspective of trying to prove a man’s innocence and so much of his early effort is directed toward demonstrating that his excuse for being witnessed entering the house shortly before one of the deaths was genuine. That means tracking down a chocolate box that had been left in a taxi which could easily lead to some plodding detective work but instead it leads to a highly entertaining encounter with the novel’s most colorful character, an out of work performer who frustrates Bennion by her habit of making up nicknames and using cockney rhyming slang.
Though locating the chocolate box might cast some doubt on the Police’s arrest, Bennion is aware that he will need to provide them with a better suspect if he is to secure his release and this leads to him more directly investigating both deaths. Here unfortunately Adams is on somewhat less firm ground though I will say I found the investigations to be entertaining and interesting.
There are two aspects of the investigation that I found to be dissatisfying and I will hope to convey the sense of the problems without being specific about details to avoid spoiling the story.
The first issue I had is that there is a moment when a huge coincidence occurs that casts doubt on someone’s alibi. Bennion happens to be in exactly the right place at the right time to observe something and while I think his ability to interpret that information and apply it to the case shows his skill as a sleuth, the information does feel too easily come by.
The bigger issue I had is that Bennion eliminates someone as a suspect too soon based on some faulty logic. A large part of the problem, we are told, is that we have a situation where there is no one suspect who would benefit from both murders except that there is and Adams misses it. That mistake does not make the actual solution any less clever or satisfying but it does mean that the suspect ought to have come under more Police scrutiny than they do and Bennion needs a stronger reason for dismissing them from his inquiries than he has.
In spite of those complaints, I found The Chief Witness to be a very entertaining adventure. Towards the end of the book the novel feels almost like a thriller in its approach and I was satisfied with the solution, even though I doubt it will surprise many readers. This was my first experience of reading anything by Adams and I plan to try some other Bennion adventures. Does anyone have any recommendations?
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime Is Crucial (When)