Reprint of the Year 2022: Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Last week I shared some thoughts about one of the most recent reprints of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, The End of Andrew Harrison. In that post I noted that I really appreciate the idea that the entirety of his output will at some point be available again and that each new set of titles moves us closer to that. It is worth pointing out though that I doubt I would have encountered Crofts at all had it not been for a crime fiction imprint that takes a different, ‘curated’ approach to its releases.

Ranges like the British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics are wonderful tools for discovery. Readers may well pick up a copy of The Mad Hatter Mystery or It Walks By Night based on already knowing and loving the author but by giving the impression of careful selection and the implication that the title is one of the highlights of that author’s work, it also provides an easy jumping on point. It is, in essence, a literary tasting menu.

Earlier this year I treated myself to a subscription to Penzler Publishing’s American Mystery Classics range through The Mysterious Bookshop. I would get a copy of whatever titles they put out with the knowledge that I’d be getting some authors I’d already know of and others that would be completely new to me. Roger Scarlett, the author of this novel, fell neatly into that second category.

I might not have picked up this book had it just been one of a half dozen titles by the author on a shelf. Indeed I would likely never have looked closely at it at all (one of the few knocks I’d make on this publication is that the image of the cat on the cover gives the book a much cozier appearance than its reality). As part of an ongoing range which has had far more hits than misses for me however I find myself more willing to give a book the benefit of the doubt and at least give it a chance to impress me.

Which Cat’s Paw did.

The story concerns the murder of a septuagenarian who is visited at his Boston mansion by members of his extended family, all hoping that they will be remembered in his will. When he shares some information at his birthday party however they are appalled and before the night is out he has been murdered.

Scarlett gives us family tensions, unspoken secrets and a cast of characters all seemingly having been pushed to desperation. It’s a very solid base for a mystery. What I appreciated here though is that while there are some familiar elements here, it feels like Scarlett is trying to give the suspects a range of backstories. Learning what those are is as exciting as discovering the solution to the mystery overall.

With much of the novel devoted to getting to know the victim and the suspects, I think that they feel particularly dimensional and well developed. It is this focus on character that makes this book such a pleasure to read and helped me really invest in discovering the truth. That solution, when it comes, is well constructed and clued, helping the book deliver a nice, punchy conclusion with an excellent final page reveal.

It was a great read and I am grateful to the American Mystery Classics range for selecting this and helping me to encounter it. I came away from the book excited to read more Roger Scarlett in the future. Now I just have to wait for someone to go ahead and reprint them…

He’d Rather Be Dead by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1945
Inspector Littlejohn #9
Preceded by Death in the Night Watches
Followed by The Case of the Scared Rabbits

The mayor of Westcome, Sir Gideon Ware, has a speciality for painting a target on his own back. Most recently, he has gained numerous enemies for transforming the quaint harbour town into a sprawling, manmade boardwalk through a series of bribes, blackmail, and backhand deals.

So when Sir Gideon Ware dies at his annual luncheon, it’s no surprise that foul play is suspected.

Inspector Littlejohn is brought in to investigate the murder, but with so many motives to sort through, the suspect list is endless. And with the Chief Constable covering up critical clues at every turn, Littlejohn is left on his own to get to the bottom of Ware’s murder.

But when a second body is found, Littlejohn’s investigation gets put on a fatal timer.

Sir Gideon Ware came from humble beginnings before striking it rich as a property developer, taking the sleepy harbor town of Westcombe and turning it into a thriving, if garish, holiday destination. It is a change that many of the locals resent, feeling exhausted by the steady stream of holidaymakers most of the year round. In spite of that ill-feeling though, Ware has been able to find success in local politics, becoming the town’s mayor just a few years after first being elected.

He’d Rather Be Dead opens by giving us a brief overview of Ware’s background and career as he prepares to speak at a luncheon he is throwing for local dignitaries. Many of the town’s most prominent people have been seated at his table yet, as we learn, most have reason to loathe their host. As Ware rises to give his speech he shows signs of being unwell, collapsing just a short while later. His appearance and subsequent autopsy points to strychnine poisoning but it is difficult to see how the drug, which should be fast-acting, could have been administered to him when everyone ate from the same communal pots and there is no trace of the poison on any of his dishes.

This is the basis for a case in which the question of how the murder was achieved will be as much a focus as whodunnit. I even briefly considered whether I ought to classify this novel as an impossible crime story; it’s the closest thing I have found in Bellairs’ oeuvre so far, though I would suggest that those reading purely for that aspect of the puzzle are likely to be disappointed but the solid but unexciting explanation as to how it was managed.

Like most of the Bellairs novels I have read the author’s greatest interest seems to lie in trying to capture a sense of a place and the people who might reside in it. The victim, Ware, should rank among his best creations (up there with the wonderfully-drawn Harry Dodd) for some of the complexities and contradictions in his character. He feels dimensional and realistic, reminding me of a few people I have met in my own life, and the author does a fine job of exploring the gap between how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by those who have come to rely on him.

This attention to characterization is replicated throughout the rest of the novel’s cast of characters with even some of the most incidental of figures given unexpected depth or personality traits that help to bring them, and the story’s setting, vividly to life. Their resentments that we learn of in the course of Littlejohn’s investigation feel credible and realistic to this sort of town setting and I enjoyed the process of uncovering those secrets and building fuller portraits of each of the figures involved in the case.

One particular source of pleasure for me was in the depiction of the local police who make for rather colorful figures. I am used to these figures quickly becoming anonymous once they call in the assistance of Scotland Yard but I was rather pleased to realize that they would actually be given some prominence in the story. Bellairs captures the tensions between two of the most important police figures in the story, once again helping to build that sense that Westcombe might be a real place.

As wonderful as the character development is, the actual procedural aspects of the case are unfortunately a little less exciting. There was certainly some interest for me in that central question of how the poison could have been administered but I felt that the investigation was rather straightforward with little to cause unexpected shifts in focus or thinking.

It perhaps didn’t help that I think the killer’s identity becomes clear rather earlier in the story than I think Bellairs believed it would as our focus quickly narrows to just a couple of serious suspects thanks to some of the more technical components of the case. I am the last person to complain about an obvious killer but the book isn’t set up to read as an inverted story and aside from the rather awkward shift to a first person account right at its end, does little to capture that killer’s perspective or voice.

Nor does it help that the solution as to how the crime was committed turns out to be quite practical and straightforward, making it feel a little less clever than I had hoped. What’s more, discovering that nature of that solution only makes the solution as to whodunnit even more obvious long before we actually reach the novel’s conclusion.

Bellairs, to his credit, does try to add some dramatic elements to the book’s conclusion, giving us one of the few moments of surprise in the novel, but then undercuts its effect with that strange choice to cut to a first person account from the murderer. This, written in a rather formal and old-fashioned way, feels stylistically strange and also a little redundant as very little of what is revealed was unknown to us. The one thing that this could have given us was an exploration of the emotional angle but here he misses and we never get any deep contemplation of that aspect of the killer’s crimes. It’s a missed opportunity that also blunts the impact the author might otherwise have achieved with the remainder of the ending.

These disappointments, both in terms of the investigation and its resolution, unfortunately waste what was one of the author’s most intriguing setups and some truly marvelous character development. He’d Rather Be Dead is still quite readable with some beautifully observed moments but those reading primarily for the puzzle are likely to be a little disappointed by how straightforward the case becomes.

The Verdict: One of the authors’ most promising setups is not fully realized thanks to some straightforward plotting that indicates the solution far too early. The rich setting and interesting characters compensate somewhat.

Further Reading: Rekha and Kate discussed the book in a spoiler-filled buddy read at Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime.

Anjana at Superfluous Reading also admired Bellairs’ characterizations here in their review.

Bev at My Reader’s Block shared my dissatisfaction with the final few chapters and also seemed to find that the killer’s identity leapt out at them.

The Detection Club Project: John Rhode – The Claverton Affair

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.
Image Credit: John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) by Howard Coster (1930) © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#11: John Rhode

He possessed enough scientific, medical and practical know-how to set in motion an almost never-ending conveyer belt of ingenious methods for committing murder.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I had expected that this next installment of my Detection Club series would feature Victor Whitechurch but issues with my copy of Murder at the Pageant left me scrambling for a replacement copy (thankfully on its way) and a new subject to profile. Fortunately I happen to have rather a lot of John Rhode novels on my TBR pile

Rhode, born Cecil John Charles Street, was one of the more prolific members of the Detection Club. Though he was late to start writing mystery fiction, beginning in his 40s, he would write over one hundred and forty novels in about thirty five years, utilizing multiple pen names to do so. Of these the most famous were John Rhode and Miles Burton though he also wrote as Cecil Waye.

Spiderman Pointing Image - labeled as John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye

In spite of the length of his career, outlasting many of his peers in the Detection Club, Rhode’s reputation would be strongly affected by Julian Symon’s categorization of him as a “humdrum” writer. There is a value judgement to that phrase that I think is rather unfair but there is some truth to the broader suggestion that his work was antithetical to the type of stories contemporary crime writers were creating towards the end of his long career. He did not, for instance, show much interest in exploring the social issues around crime and his characters are often quite functional, defined by their professions and roles in the story rather than their own personalities.

Instead Rhode’s interest lay in the technical challenges of puzzle design – an area in which he could be quite masterful. While the quality of his output could vary, he crafted some truly ingenious murder puzzles that often utilized unusual and unexpected murder methods leaving the reader wondering how the murder was done.

I have previously read several works by this author both from his Dr. Priestley series (written as Rhode) and the Desmond Merrion series (as Burton) including several from the period before this blog began. While I have to acknowledge that this is only a fraction of his output and I may come across works to change my mind, at this time I have a pretty strong preference for the Rhode stories.

My reason is that I really like the somewhat fussy scientist who typically plays armchair sleuth, giving advice to the professional police to get their floundering investigations back on track. I enjoy the character’s logical approach to breaking down problems which, to my mind, really suits the types of ingenious puzzles Rhode tended to construct.

Today’s read, The Claverton Affair, is a good example of the author’s skill at constructing that type of puzzle. Though it is not an inverted mystery, readers may well have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the crime from the outset of the investigation. The focus therefore is not on whodunnit but how and the answer, as is typical of Rhode, is quite remarkable…

The Claverton Affair by John Rhode

Originally published in 1933
Dr. Priestley #15
Preceded by The Motor Rally Mystery
Followed by The Venner Crime

After drifting apart from Sir John Claverton, Dr. Lancelot Priestley is finally visiting his old friend for dinner. But Claverton’s situation is worrying. He’s surrounded by relatives, among them a sister who speaks to the dead—but not to him—and a niece who may or may not be a qualified nurse. Based on Claverton’s odd behavior, Priestley and a mutual friend suspect that someone is slipping him arsenic.

But when Priestley discovers that Claverton has died just a week later and shares his concerns with the police, no trace of arsenic—or anything else untoward—is found during the autopsy. Still, the perceptive professor can’t shake his sense that something isn’t right, and Claverton’s recently revised will only adds to the mystery . . .

This novel finds Dr. Priestley visiting an old friend, Sir John Claverton at his invitation. Over the years the pair have fallen out of touch and Priestley has some misgivings about resuming the friendship but when he arrives he finds a strange atmosphere in the home and his friend recovering from a bout of sickness. As he bids farewell with a promise to return the following week, Priestley speaks with Claverton’s physician who confides that while his patient is on the path to recovery, he believes that someone gave him arsenic.

When Priestley returns the following week he discovers that Claverton had died shortly before while his doctor was away. He decides he must share the information about the earlier attempted poisoning, expecting that the medical examination will reveal signs of arsenical poisoning, but it surprised when there are no signs of the poison. Priestley is certain that his old friend was murdered – the question is: how was it done?

One of the things I really like about the setup for The Claverton Affair is its subversion of our expectations. We come to the novel expecting that we will quickly learn the way Claverton was murdered and try to work out whodunnit but instead a large part of the case will involve overcoming the evidence that seems to suggest a natural death. This is not dissimilar to the setup found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, though I would suggest that this has the more technically creative solution, for better and worse.

The problem with any puzzle that has a very technical solution, as we saw with my previous Detection Club Project title, The Documents in the Case by Sayers and Robert Eustace, is that when a problem requires some technical knowledge the author either has to make an effort to subtly provide that to the reader or else you run the risk that you get a puzzle that doesn’t feel fair. I think an argument could be made that Rhode doesn’t explain every element of his solution prior to its reveal. The key elements however are all easily identified and, I would argue, the reader ought to be able to work out most of the solution even if they do not possess the technical expertise to solve it in its entirety.

Indeed a large part of Rhode’s skill as a mystery writer is taking a technical problem with medical or scientific elements like the one presented here and making it accessible. His characters often speak in a rather dry and mannered way but while that doesn’t feel like natural dialogue, it is essential for clean, clear distribution of key points of information.

A strong example of that can be found here in the conversations concerning the autopsy. Rhode clearly outlines what the tests for arsenical poisoning are in an exchange between Priestley and the police pathologist as the latter walks Priestley through those tests as he repeats them for his benefit. The exchange is somewhat redundant – the latter acknowledges that Priestley likely knows just as much if not more than him about those tests – but it occurs primarily for the benefit of the reader and to demonstrate conclusively to us that it is not a case of a test not being run or scientific incompetence.

This brings me to one of the differences between this and most of the other Priestley stories I have read before; in The Claverton Affair our sleuth is unusually active both in finding the case for himself and working to collect evidence. Typically Priestley behaves as an armchair detective, listening to the accounts of others and then pointing out the type of evidence he would like the police to look for. The initial setup here does include someone bringing their concerns of foul play to him but the difference is that once this happens he becomes personally involved in gathering that evidence.

Priestley is not a natural lead investigator in large part because of his personality. His fussiness and attention to detail wouldn’t be an asset in the type of story where he has to conduct lots of interviews, befriend witnesses and so forth. He is perfectly suited however for this sort of story in which he has to find the small details and inconsistencies, interacting primarily with medical professionals to spot the evidence that will enable him to prove murder.

As I have found with other Rhode stories, the personalities of the suspects here are not particularly noteworthy. While the family members do make an impression when they are first introduced for not being very talkative, I don’t feel that they have particularly strong personalities. One of them however does have an interesting background that Rhode will utilize: working as a medium.

The séance is one of those great tropes of the Golden Age that when done well, as it is here, can really elevate a story. This is no exception. Rhode not only does a good job of using it to create an atmosphere but the device also plays an important role in advancing the story, particularly as we reach the novel’s conclusion.

That conclusion is both dramatic and interesting, providing a very satisfying conclusion to what is one of the most intriguing Priestley cases I have read to date. While I was able to work out a few key points of the crime, the actual method used caught me by surprise (and, I should note, I did know a crucial piece of information prior to reading it so I could well have got to it if the idea had ever occurred to me).

The Verdict: One of the more successful Dr. Priestley stories I have read offering a curious puzzle with a rather ingenious solution. While the sleuth is rather unusually active in this investigation, it offers a good example of Rhode’s most notable attributes as a writer – his ingenuity and ability to convey technical information clearly so that even those with no scientific ability (i.e. me) should have no difficulty following the solution.

Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery considered this an interesting take on the impossible crime.

Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, who is far better read in Rhode than me, describes this as ‘One of Rhode’s undoubted classics’. He also notes that the atmosphere generated in this story is unusual for the author.

Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, the title was recently republished by Mysterious Press as an eBook (cover page pictured above) complete with introduction from Dr. Curtis Evans.

Murder on “B” Deck by Vincent Starrett

Originally published in 1929
Walter Ghost #1
Followed by Dead Man Inside

For the passengers aboard the Latakia, the transatlantic journey from New York to Cherbourg promises weeks of rest and relaxation, no matter what class of ticket they have. But after an Italian baroness is found strangled in her cabin, the situation on board becomes more tense. The main suspect soon goes overboard, creating more questions than answers: Did a guilty conscience spur a suicidal act, or was he a witness silenced by the true killer, still at large on the luxury liner. 

Enter former intelligence officer Walter Ghost, tapped by the ship’s captain to play detective and solve the murder. He’s joined by his friend Dunsten Mollock, a novelist whose experience with mystery stories gives him helpful insights into the case. With clues including an amateur film, a doll, and a card from Memphis, Tennessee, it seems the duo have plenty to work with. But will they be able to solve the crime before word of the murder makes it into the steamship’s rumor mill, surely sending any guilty persons even deeper into hiding?

Several years ago Penzler Publishers reprinted Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder as part of their American Mystery Classics range. I enjoyed that book’s blend of mystery and adventure enough that I was excited to see another of the author’s works, Murder on “B” Deck, added to the range earlier this year and I would have got to it sooner except its publication coincided with a period where this blog went into a bit of an unplanned hiatus.

This novel, Starrett’s first genre offering, similarly is more of a lighthearted adventure or thriller than detective story. In its memorable opening chapter we follow mystery novelist Dunstan Mollock as he grudgingly pays a farewell visit on board an ocean liner bound for Europe and by misfortune finds himself accidentally caught up in a transatlantic crossing. After considering ways that he might be taken back, he decides instead to see the ship’s bursar to pay for passage and enjoy the trip in the company of his old friend, Walter Ghost.

After befriending an attractive young woman, he rashly suggests that he will write a mystery novel while on board, drawing inspiration from their own trip and the characters on board, and proposes reading the first chapter to her that night. As he reads that night however a crime is discovered whose circumstances uncannily mirror those described in his work and he finds himself assisting Ghost who has been asked to investigate the murder and find its solution before the ship reaches Cherbourg and the killer can escape.

The early chapters of this book setting up the circumstances of the adventure were for me its most enjoyable. Starrett does a wonderful job of creating a bustling sense of energy as Mollock reluctantly heads aboard and conjures up a picture of the cramped champagne party in his sister’s room very nicely. While the circumstances of the writer ending up aboard the ship are perhaps unnecessarily contrived (there is no story reason that he couldn’t just have bought his ticket in the first place), it does establish the book’s entertaining screwball comedy tone and helps introduce several of the characters quite organically.

These early chapters contain some of the book’s sharpest and wittiest remarks and I particularly enjoyed the reading of Mollock’s first chapter, interspersed with commentary from that character that reflects on the genre in a rather pompous manner clearly intended to impress the young woman he admires. The idea that the fictive crime should so closely resemble the actual one that we will spend the novel investigating is an entertaining one and Starrett pitches that idea nicely, playing with the idea without allowing it to become a distraction (Mollock, for instance, is not ever really considered as a possible murderer in spite of the coincidences).

Following the murder our focus shifts to following Ghost with Mollock falling into the sidekick role. The best parallel I can think of here is Poirot and Hastings in Murder on the Links. Mollock is there, listens to the evidence and provides his own theories from the perspective of a mystery novelist, but his actions sometimes frustrate the progress of the investigation. He is, after all, romantically interested in someone who might be a suspect in the case and is as interested in developing that romance as in finding the killer.

Ghost, whose background is a little enigmatic for a good part of the novel, is keen to emphasize that he is not a formally trained investigator. He is smart and logical in his thinking but he doesn’t always attack the matter in a clear procedural way, additionally hampered by the investigation needing to be a discrete one as for much of the novel the murder is kept a secret. It may feel a little untidy but it is also charmingly natural and reminds us that our detectives are approaching this as amateurs.

The main reason that this less disciplined investigative approach doesn’t bother me though is that the book is not intended to be a fair play mystery – at least in terms of establishing whodunit. Starrett does not, for instance, spend much time fleshing out the suspects and some potential leads are briefly addressed but never fully resolved.

The question of why however is much fairer game. Starrett provides much better clueing for the sort of explanation we ought to be looking for here and while we may not anticipate all of the elements of the murder, I thought that the story was a rather interesting one. I particularly appreciated some of the little elements of social history woven into this part of the story and though there are no shock revelations with regards this aspect of the novel, I found it interesting and effective.

As we approach the conclusion to the novel things do get a little messy. There are some fortuitous discoveries that end up putting Ghost and Mollock on the right track. Indeed my biggest problem with the book is that the solution is essentially gifted to them because of something the killer does that feels utterly bizarre and which will lead the investigation directly to them.

Those who approach this hoping to play armchair detective are likely to be frustrated both by this development and also by the killer’s identity which felt rather disappointing after so much build-up. Fortunately I came to this book after that previous experience with Starrett and so I was prepared to enjoy this for the ride rather than the conclusion.

Starrett’s writing, for instance, can be delightful and witty. I enjoyed the colorful cast of characters he develops and I felt he conjured up a really strong sense of the place and time. Indeed it is possibly the social history found in the novel that I think will stick with me longest. I found the discussion of midnight sailings really interesting and appreciated the further discussion of this both as a practice and in terms of how it inspired Starrett to start this story that can be found in Ray Betzner’s excellent introduction to this American Mystery Classics edition.

While I consider The Great Hotel Murder to be a better example of a detective story, I found Murder on “B” Deck to be a more interesting and entertaining read overall. Starrett balances comedy and action well to create a thoroughly engaging and readable novel that sustains its energy nicely. While I would caution that the conclusion may well frustrate, I found plenty to enjoy about the journey from its metafictional elements to its appealing characters and settings.

The Verdict: This flawed but entertaining adventure thriller is certainly worth a look for those in search of a lighthearted murder story.

Second Opinions: Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime also enjoyed this, noting the thriller-ish tone of the story and comments about Ghost’s fallibility and how that is used by Starrett in a way that feels natural.

Bev @ My Reader’s Block describes the book as a pleasant read but felt that the race against time element of the story didn’t give the story the sense of urgency expected.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for the paperback of the American Mystery Classics reprint is 9781613162798, the hardcover is 9781613162781.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the paperback and the hardcover at where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: these are affiliate links – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Detection Club Project – Robert Eustace: The Documents in the Case

#10: Robert Eustace

Despite a career in crime fiction spanning more than forty years, Robert Eustace was the most mysterious member of the Detection Club. For decades after his death, students of the genre speculated about his identity, his date of birth, and even his sexual orientation.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I think it is safe to say that back when I first conceived of my project of reading a work by every member of the Detection Club, I didn’t expect that I would be writing about Robert Eustace before Dorothy L. Sayers. As it happens though my book club is reading The Documents in the Case, his collaboration with her, this month. As it is a work he regarded with some enthusiasm, declaring it ‘the best idea of my life’, it seemed foolish to not select it for this series.

While details Eustace’s life may not have been quite as enigmatic as some suggest, he does not leap off the page as one of the more memorable figures in The Golden Age of Murder. In that book he is discussed principally in connection with his work on The Documents in the Case, though what information we do get about his personality paints a portrait of a rather eccentric individual. At the point at which he joined the Detection Club he had been an active figure in the genre for several decades and while his early stories featured crimes, they were often works of suspense – some suggesting supernatural elements.

Eustace’s primary profession was that of medical doctor but he pursued fiction as a way of supplementing his professional income. Almost all of his works were written in collaboration with others such as L. T. Meade and Edgar Jepson. It was a collaboration with the latter that produced one of his most memorable works, The Tea-Leaf – a short story which features in the British Library’s Capital Crimes anthology.

In that story a man is stabbed to death in the steam room of a Russian bathhouse but no weapon can be found. It is one of those stories that sadly suffers from its pretty inventive central concept being frequently appropriated by subsequent, often inferior works. While the work’s brevity works in its favor, if you happen to have read another book that utilizes the method developed for that story there will be no mystery in the solution at all.

The idea at the heart of The Documents in the Case would be far more complex and it has lost none of its novelty. That story was built around a scientific idea that Eustace had researched that would play a key part in developing its resolution and which also appealed to Sayers. His role in developing the work that would emerge was to further research and refine that idea, providing technical assistance to Sayers who would be responsible for developing the narrative around that.

It would prove to be a one-off experiment as Sayers was ultimately displeased with her efforts which she apparently felt did not do justice to Eustace’s idea. Still, it does illustrate Eustace’s enthusiasm for constructing a story around a novel technical solution…

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace

Originally published in 1930

The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted . . .

Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?

The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London.

The Documents in the Case is an example of a dossier crime novel in which the novel is comprised of a collection of documents and accounts from the characters involved in the story. While I can think of a few examples of this approach, the only other book in this style that I have written about so far on this blog is Andrew Garve’s excellent political thriller The File on Lester.

The choice to write crime fiction in a dossier presentation style is an intriguing one, particularly given it makes for quite a departure from Sayers’ usual approach which was a detective story with a clear sleuthing character. While the reader here can infer who is likely responsible for collating these documents reasonably early in the book, they cannot be certain why they are doing this until close to halfway into the story.

The advantage of this style is that it can allow for the development of strong and distinctive character voices, permitting us access to their internal thoughts and feelings. In particular we will read the thoughts of the victim and those we will come to suspect of killing them, getting a sense of their personalities and how their perspectives sometimes contradict those of the other narrators. There are some points where this can be quite effectively done, particularly as we get to learn about the state of Harrison’s marriage, but it can also lead to some rather ponderous storytelling as characters reflect, pontificate and opine about the same things we have already seen before.

One way that this might have been avoided is to have more variety in the type of documents found inside the book but here the reader is to be disappointed. Almost everything in the first part of the novel is a letter, often with multiple letters sent from the same writer to the same recipient presented in a row. This, to my mind, removes the principal benefit of the form – that of variety.

That being said, these early chapters do raise an interesting point regarding the reader’s sympathies in the conflict between the Harrisons. The viewpoints expressed about the same sets of events differ so wildly in interpretation that we might wonder where the truth lies as both characters are, of course, writing for their respective audiences. This raises the possibility of unreliability but this is an idea that never really gets taken up seriously as the accounts prove surprisingly straightforward.

That itself perhaps reflects that while the book does not directly explain what happened until close to its end, aspects of the solution will likely jump out at the reader early. The authors seem less interested in keeping the reader guessing who was responsible as how they will be caught. The effect is not dissimilar to that found in one of Sayers’ earlier works, Unnatural Death. The difference between the two works is largely, in my view, one of the accessibility of the solution.

Robert Eustace’s great idea that so intrigued Sayers is undoubtedly a really clever one but it has a problem that plagues so many detective stories predicated on a highly technical explanation – to feel involved in the deductive process, the reader will have to possess the information needed to decode it prior to the story’s denouement. Unlike Unnatural Death which hinges on a single, simple idea, the concept at the heart of The Documents in the Case requires considerable explanation to be properly appreciated.

It is a shame that one of the documents included wasn’t a diagram or illustration to show more practically the idea that ends up being discussed at length as it might have helped compact the explanation (or at least given me something interesting to look at as my eyes glazed over). Instead however it ends up being trailed in a dense and rather dry passage of the type that will delight those who appreciate inventive scientific thinking while boring those less scientifically-minded, keeping it from achieving its full effect – at least upon this reader.

If that seems overly negative, I should say that there were aspects of the book I enjoyed such as the characterization of Munting, the writer, whose letters often contain mildly acidic observations of the other figures involved in the drama and betray a deep desire to be left out of the whole affair. There is some interesting musing about art, the natural world, and publishing too, and I appreciated that the victim is built up to be a properly dimensional character and I appreciate that the book explores some of his ambiguities.

The problem is that the things that interest me here are simply not the ones that most interest Sayers and Eustace. Their focus is on the method of detection and as much as I recognize and admire the cleverness of the concept, I find it all a bit dry for my taste and though interesting in places, it entertained less than I should have liked.

The Verdict: Eustace was right to think his idea brilliant but it is also rather dry. Given that there is no body until over halfway into the book and little suspense about who the victim and killer will be, too much hinges on how the thing was done and the case proven.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book appears to not currently be in print in the United States but there is a British edition published by Hodder Paperbacks (ISBN: 978-1473621343) that can be imported from booksellers who ship internationally. It is however available as an eBook (which is how I read it) – albeit one that has more typos than I would like and which, annoyingly, has no table of contents.

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich

Originally published in 1944 using the pseudonym William Irish.

When Quinn first meets Bricky, she’s working as a partner-for-hire at a dancehall and he’s struggling to shake the anxiety of his guilty conscience. Earlier that day, the young man took advantage of a found key and used it to rob a stranger’s home. Now, with the purloined money in his pocket, Quinn is unable to escape the memory of his wrongdoing―and not even a night spent dancing is enough to silence his nagging thoughts. 

When the dancehall closes, he and Bricky―linked, after many intimate hours, by a budding romance―return to the scene of the crime intending to restore the stolen fortune and begin a new life together, only to discover, upon arrival, that the owner of the property has been murdered. There’s evidence present that easily links Quinn to the crime, and he expects that, as soon as day breaks and the authorities learn of the gruesome scene, he will be arrested straight away. Which means that he and Bricky have only a few short hours to find the true killer and clear Quinn’s name for good.

What begins as a romance soon turns into a nightmare, as this young couple trek through the dark underbelly of old New York in a desperate race for salvation.

Deadline at Dawn concerns two people, one a dancer for hire, the other an out-of-work handyman, who meet and recognize that they both came from the same town. Had they each stayed there they may well have been sweethearts – instead they each made their way to the big city where they failed to realize their dreams, leaving them feeling chewed up and hopeless.

Both had contemplated heading back to their small town but felt unable to do so on their own. They think that together though they might finally do it and they agree to catch a bus together at 6am. There is a complication however. Quinn had pulled off a robbery earlier that evening, breaking into the home of a former client and stealing a sizeable sum of money. It’s a decision he regrets, finding he cannot enjoy his ill-acquired gains, but he also fears that the police will be after him. Bricky presents a solution – if they can return the money before the client returns to their home and realizes the theft has happened then he might escape charges. Unfortunately for the pair when they do return to the house they find a dead body…

One of the things that defines the story is that it takes place over a very short space of time – just a little over five hours. This is driven home to the reader by the fun device of beginning each chapter with an analog clock reading rather than a title or number. It isn’t just the novelty of this that makes it memorable though – rather it’s the way that this contributes to the pressure that our heroes are under, reminding us just how little time remains for them to accomplish their goals. It’s a great device for creating and building pressure and it worked well for me.

Of course the reader must accept that these two characters would in just a few hours throw themselves in together in the way shown. Their connection is far from typical after all. Woolrich does a really good job though of convincing the reader of their desperation and sense of hopelessness. Each begins the story seeming doomed and so while a romance ensues, it is as much about clinging to one another in the hope of survival and exploring what might have been as it is the hope of how that will develop now.

I really liked both Bricky and Quinn and quickly came to care for them as their stories are revealed and we get to know them. It is easy to understand how each fell into their respective positions of hopelessness, the barriers that have kept them from heading home and to understand the desperation that led Quinn to steal. While we begin the book keenly aware of the darkness they are in, there is also a sense of hope – they found each other in their darkest moment and together they might just pull through.

The discovery of the body is obviously an enormous complication for our young pair and it does represent a further challenge to the credibility of our heroes actions. It is nearly always questionable why an amateur ends up investigating a murder and here we may think our heroes foolish for not immediately reporting the crime, as bad as it might look. Woolrich has done such a strong job of building that ‘it’s now or never’ message though that I think he just about sells it – any kind of a delay is sure to damage their resolve and mean they will never get on that bus…

Their investigative efforts are characterized more by their urgency than the quality or complexity of their reasoning. This is not the sort of case where the reader has anything much to solve – we hardly know anything about the victim, let alone those who may wish to kill him. Still there are a few nice moments where we see our heroes draw smart and logical conclusions from the evidence they have been presented with and I enjoyed seeing how they divided responsibility, each pursuing separate leads.

One of the aspects of this book I appreciated most was its seedy depiction of the city in those early hours of the morning. This starts with the description of Bricky leaving the dance hall and trying to elude the men waiting at the doors, hoping to convince the girls to go with them. There are similarly effective moments that take place in the cabs, pharmacies and bars that we visit in the course of that evening. All of this reinforces that notion of the city as having a façade of loveliness which covers a much rougher reality experienced by the people who make that dream seem real.

The investigation comprises lots of false starts and dead ends. One positive of this is that we get a number of glimpses into the lives of other people roaming the city in those early hours, getting a glimpse at some of the other hopeless situations people have found themselves in. One of the most poignant of these comes in an unexpectedly emotional exchange between Quinn and a man he believes is carrying a gun. That sequence was for me one of the highlights of the book.

The less positive consequence of the structuring of that investigation though is that when we enter the story’s final act, Woolrich has a lot of dots left to connect and not much space left to do it. This in turns brings two issues with it. The first is that credibility gets stretched just that little bit further as things have to be wrapped up one way or another by that 6am deadline. I will admit to having little sense of the geography of the area in which the story is set so I don’t know if these locations are closer together than I was assuming but the reader will have to swallow a lot of swift movement and decision making – particularly in those final few chapters.

The other is that as we near that conclusion, I found the sudden acceleration in storytelling and the incorporation of some more action-driven sequences led to me having to reread some passages carefully to be sure I was following the developments in the story correctly. When I did though I found a story that felt largely satisfying, particularly when viewed on a thematic level. I might suggest that Woolrich does engage in a few overly neat story moves, leaving things overly tidy, but that is perhaps a necessary consequence of the messy way in which the adventure begins.

Overall I am happy to be able to say I had a great time with this one. I admired its depiction of two people who begin the story hopeless but find strength and support in one another. I came away from this reminded that I have a couple of other Woolrich titles on my TBR pile that really deserve my attention. Expect to see me tackle them at some point in the next few months…

The Verdict: This entertaining race against time story features some compelling characters and an intriguing situation. There’s no detection here to speak of but the ride is worth experiencing for anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

The Detection Club Project: Helen Simpson – The Prime Minister is Dead

#8: Helen Simpson

Image Credit: Helen de Guerry Simpson by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Tall and pale, with thick dark wavy hair, Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that a woman could have it all.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

You may recall that when I wrote my post about Clemence Dane a few months ago as part of this series, I noted that I had struggled with the decision as to whether to write a single profile with her and Helen Simpson. The reason for considering doing that is that most of their detective fiction output was the result of collaborating with each other.

Indeed there seems to have been some speculation whether Simpson was actually a full member of the Detection Club in her own right as she is described as an ‘associate member’ in a contemporary list of members. Martin Edwards notes though in his survey of the history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, that she was eminently qualified for membership in her own right and that her interest in the genre outlasted that of her writing partner.

One sign of that is that while Dane only wrote mysteries in collaboration, Simpson did write a mystery novel on her own and contributed to several of the Club’s collaborative works. She also was friendly with Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading members of the Detection Club, and was collaborating with her on a history of Lord Peter.

The portrait of Simpson in The Golden Age of Murder is not particularly lengthy but does a good job of giving a sense of her abilities and wide range of interests which included witchcraft and smoking cigars. One of those passions was politics which we will see reflected in the book discussed below…

The Prime Minister is Dead by Helen Simpson

Following the publication of Enter Sir John and Printer’s Devil, Helen Simpson went on to write this novel which was originally published in the UK as Vantage Striker in 1931. As you can see I have opted to use its American title for this post. That partly is to acknowledge the edition that I read but mostly it’s because I think the original title is terrible, conveying little sense of what the book is actually about to those unfamiliar with the term.

The novel is one of those which arguably exists on the edge of the genre. It is a story about a murder, its investigation and the resolution of the case yet that detective process never feels like the focus of the book. Rather I would suggest that the book feels like it is most concerned with exploring the political fallout from an event of the type depicted and working through how the establishment might respond to such a situation.

We begin shortly after the conclusion of a party leadership election in which a new Prime Minister, Mr. Aspinall, has been selected. That person was not regarded as the best or brightest but rather an affable and inoffensive lightweight. The assumption is that the runner-up, the International Secretary Justin Brazier, will resign. Instead he stubbornly holds onto his office while making it quite clear that he does not approve of his new leader. A political crisis seems to be in the offing so Aspinall decides he will try and reach out, arranging a private meeting between them over dinner. Rather than bridging their divide, the evening ends with Aspinall dead from a head injury.

One of the reasons that this story struck me as being on the edge of the genre was that it takes a really long time to get to its death and even once we do, it is several chapters before the manner of that death is ever described to the reader. Instead Simpson places the focus on establishing the professional relationships between the various characters. There are several lengthy sporting sequences – one that takes place in a boxing match, the other tennis – which serve as analogies of sorts to the situation being constructed. Both are solidly described though I felt both went on a little longer than I desired.

Those political relationships are quite interesting however and I appreciated the often witty observations and commentaries Simpson offers on politicians and elective office. It’s by no means razor sharp satire, but Simpson is thoughtful about her topic and does a good job creating credible characters to explore those issues with.

As I suggested earlier, I do feel that there are some issues with the pacing of this story if we are trying to read it as a work of mystery fiction. One of these is that Simpson devotes so much time to setting up her scenario that the murder sequence and investigation feel very short in comparison to the point of being rushed. This strikes me as a shame because when Simpson finally does have those elements in place in the final few chapters of her story, she does use them well to create a very interesting and original conclusion.

Unfortunately though it is rushed and there is little sport to be had in trying to play along with this one. Simpson offers little in the way of credible misdirection, leaving the murderer quite visible and easy to identify from an early point in the story. It perhaps doesn’t help either that some assumptions that may have been outrageous and unthinkable in 1931 would represent our default mindset today, meaning that one reveal is unlikely to surprise quite as it would have done ninety years earlier.

The Prime Minister is Dead may not be a classic work of detective fiction but it does offer some points of interest, particularly for those with an interest in all things Westminster. It also demonstrates that the author was as comfortable creating a story in that setting as they had been in exploring the theatrical world in Enter Sir John.

The Verdict: More interesting for its depiction of Westminster than its rushed and ultimately unsatisfying murder plot.

Further Reading

Martin Edwards wrote about this book under its original UK title Vantage Striker on his blog and also featured the title in his book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

The Detection Club Project: Margaret Cole – The Murder at Crome House

Image Credit: Dame Margaret Isabel Cole by Stella Bowen © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#6: Margaret Cole

Margaret was a dynamic young woman, with a ‘mop of short thick black wavy hair in which is set swarthy complexion, sharp nose and chin and most brilliantly defiant eyes’.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

After tackling half of a short-lived writing partnership last time around, this time around I am taking as my subject one member of a rather more long-lived and prolific crime-writing partnership – Margaret Cole.

Just like last time I pondered whether it would be best to tackle the Coles together as one ‘writer’ or separately. There is always a question of how you identify the aspects of a book that relate to one member of a writing partnership over another. As it happens however the Coles’ method of writing appears to have been relatively unusual as Martin Edwards describes:

The Coles decided to play the detective game together… Having settled a plot in outline, one spouse wrote a first draft which the couple then discussed and worked on together.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Crime historian Curtis Evans in The Spectrum of English Murder, a comparative study of the lives and work of the Coles and fellow Detection Club member Henry Wade, goes into greater detail on this practice and produces a breakdown of which books he believed Margaret and her husband were responsible for based both on sources and textural analysis. The earliest work he attributes primarily to Margaret is the one I will be writing about below – 1927’s The Murder at Crome House.

Based on what I have read both in Edwards’ and Evans’ books, Margaret Cole seems to have been a fascinating individual. Born Margaret Postgate (if that name seems familiar it may be because her brother Raymond would also become a detective fiction writer), she rejected her father’s conservative views and instead ’embraced socialism, atheism, feminism and pipe-smoking’.

Margaret taught for a while before meeting Douglas Cole, an economist, while working on a campaign against conscription. Both would go on to work for the Fabian Society, promoting the cause of democratic socialism. Their courtship and marriage were both quite unusual and both Evans and Edwards’ books do a good job of exploring those aspects of their personal lives.

Douglas was the first to take to writing crime fiction, taking it up during a period recovering from a bout of pneumonia and finishing it when Margaret bet him that he wouldn’t. Detective fiction became a way of supplementing their income from their academic works and the couple became quite prolific over a period of about twenty years with many of their novels featuring series sleuth Superintendent Wilson (I previously reviewed End of an Ancient Mariner from that series).

Martin Edwards’ book paints a picture of Margaret as the most social of the two, comfortable in a wide mix of company which the Detection Club will have certainly offered as many of its members will have been of quite different political persuasions from the couple. It seems though that Margaret enjoyed debating with those other members.

While the Coles produced quite a substantial body of work, eventually their interest in the genre would collapse. Margaret did remain prominent in other aspects of her life however, serving on London County Council’s Education Committee and later the Inner London Education Authority. She would be given an OBE and later MBE in recognition of her services to local government and education.

So, how best to assess the contribution and style of Margaret Cole? Honestly, I am not entirely sure. The best I can think to do is to look at a book they wrote together and then to read the book we know was entirely the work of G. D. H. Cole to see what’s different. To do the latter we will have to wait until I get hold of The Brooklyn Murders. In the meantime, below are my thoughts on The Murder at Crome House.

The Murder at Crome House by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole

Originally published in 1927

What would you do if you, a University lecturer with no qualifications for detective work, were suddenly called upon to vindicate a friend’s name by discovering the author of a crime committed nearly six months before, and your only clue led nowhere?  This is the problem which confronted James Flint and his friends in the murder of Sir Harry Wye, for which his stepson had so nearly been hanged; and the story tells how, with no superhuman sleuth or vast scientific apparatus to assist them, but merely by patiently using their wits, the little group at last succeeded in clearing the unfortunate suspect and unmasking a peculiarly atrocious scoundrel.  The unravelling brings them up against many remarkable and entertaining characters, and into exciting situations in which one of them is nearly killed before the end is reached; but the signal fact about this story, unlike most detective yarns, is that it might have happened to any one.

The Murder at Crome House begins with James Flint, an academic, finding an odd photograph of a man appearing to prepare to shoot another man tucked inside a library book. He is disposed to think of the thing as a prank and puts it in the fire only to be surprised with a visit from the previous borrower who has come in search of the picture. Wrongly believing it to be burned, Flint assures him that the picture is no more and is surprised that the man seems pleased and leaves happily. When he discovers the picture again later that day he plans to return it until he learns that the photograph is similar to another that had been evidence in a recently concluded murder trial.

The victim in that trial was Sir Harry Wye, a rather unpleasant rogue who seems to have kept poor company and had his share of enemies. The one accused of his murder had been his stepson, believed lost at sea many years earlier, who returned to England with claims that Wye had cheated him out of an inheritance from his mother. Many in the community believed him guilty but he was spotted elsewhere at about the time of the murder, leaving him to escape the gallows with his life but with his reputation in tatters.

Rather unusually then the authors are presenting us with a story where the crime and much of the investigation has already taken place at the start of the novel. Our role, and that of the amateur sleuths, is not so much to collect the evidence as to weigh it and make connections between the details to test its reliability and build a complete picture of the affair.

The most distinctive aspect of the crime is that initial hook – the rather odd photographs. In some ways this element feels quite modern, seeming to anticipate decades of later works with murders caught on camera, but because the shot is a still rather than a video it feels mechanically quite contrived. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a way that this might turn out to be a genuine photograph and so instead we are stuck wondering just how and why this could factor into the case itself and this aspect of the mystery gets sidelined for much of the novel.

Instead our focus is that familiar one of trying to break an alibi. In this case we are presented with several possible suspects but those with the opportunity seem to have no motive while those who might have wanted Wye dead all seem to have been seen some distance from the house at the time of the murder.

Flint initially seems reluctant to get involved but after hearing more about the murder he begins to believe that the stepson’s story, which admittedly sounds quite odd and far-fetched, may be truthful. He and a few others connected with that man decide to work together to seek out evidence that might prove his innocence and uncover the real killer’s identity.

This idea of a group of amateurs all pitching in together to investigate is a rather charming one and while I think the cheery volunteer card is played perhaps once too often, I think it allows for a steady accumulation of evidence. Equally important though is that I believe it helps to reinforce the idea that the murdered man was really not a nice person and that Oliver, foolish as he can seem, is actually quite appealing and sympathetic.

One aspect of the book that passed me by until it was pointed out to me is that our hero, Flint, shares a number of attributes in common with Margaret’s husband Douglas (G. D. H. Cole). It is not just their backgrounds as academics but their temperaments are similar too. While Flint is not the warmest of characters, I quite enjoyed him as a protagonist and found myself wishing that he had been used again as this is, unfortunately, a standalone work.

While Flint strikes me as a pretty engaging protagonist, I found a few of the other characters seemed much less complex and compelling by comparison. Some of that reflects that most are there to serve some plotting purpose, entering to dispense a single piece of information before exiting the stage. In other cases however I think the authors fall into the mistake of writing types and so some characters feel a little generic or clumsily drawn. One passage in particular, concerning a drunken witness, felt a little overwritten while a completely incidental character, a Japanese student, is treated purely as a ‘gag’ and written in a way I found rather cringeworthy.

Other aspects of the story work a little better. While I do think the investigation moves a tad slowly in the middle of the novel, the Coles provide plenty of revelations towards the end, giving the sense that we are building to a final revelation.

That big reveal when it comes was not particularly surprising to me as I felt that the killer’s identity does stand out from close to the start of the novel, but I enjoyed reading this to see just how that character might be caught. Some aspects of that solution are pretty strong though I do think there is an aspect of how it was accomplished that feels rather lazy and ought to have been considered much earlier in the story. Perhaps more importantly, there are a few action-oriented moments towards the end of the piece that I felt did a good job of raising the tension and our anticipation of the villain being caught.

The Verdict: This book has some interesting elements but perhaps takes a little too long getting to its conclusion, rendering it a little anticlimactic.

Second Opinions:

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World found the writing witty but the comparison with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans feels quite apt.

The Case of the Painted Ladies by Brian Flynn

Originally published in 1940
Anthony Bathurst #25
Preceded by The Case of the Faithful Heart
Followed by They Never Came Back

Three remarkable things happen to Aubrey Coventry in one day. First, he is contacted by Wall Street financier Silas Montgomery with a lucrative business proposition – although Montgomery insists on meeting him at two a.m. the following day. Second, at a village garden party, a fortune teller cannot read his future, as he does not have one. And thirdly, a shabbily-dressed man reacts with a vicious snarl when simply asked for a light.

The fortune teller is proven correct when Coventry is found dead in his office the next morning. Private Detective Anthony Bathurst finds himself on the trail of the snarling man, reported to have been following Coventry in the night. To unmask the culprit, however, Bathurst is going to need help from some very special friends…

The last time I read and wrote about one of Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst novels, the sublime Such Bright Disguises, I ended up nominating it for Reprint of the Year. Little wonder then that I have been keen to return to the series but one of the challenges has been trying to figure out what I wanted to read next. With so many already reprinted and with more on the way, we are somewhat spoiled for choice.

Rather than defer to someone else’s judgment, I decided that I would eschew from reading reviews or soliciting recommendations. Instead I would base my choice purely on cover and blurb appeal, ultimately selecting this novel for the rather intriguing set of strange happenings described.

The novel opens by describing how in the course of a single day Aubrey Coventry ends up experiencing several strange events. The first is a telephone call from a leading Wall Street financier seeking a meeting alone in Aubrey’s home in the early hours of the morning. The second, a chilling session with a fortune teller who tells him that he has no future to read. The final, an odd interaction with a shabbily-dressed man in the park who snarls and backs away when Aubrey speaks to him.

The next day Coventry is discovered dead in his office having been murdered in the early hours of the morning after apparently meeting with that financier. No papers seem to have been stolen, nor any valuables as those were kept at his bank.

I quite enjoyed the rather unusual setup that Flynn creates for this story. Rather than trying to establish the victim as someone people would naturally want to kill, the murder of Aubrey seems every bit as odd as the things he had experienced the day before. It appears to be a motiveless crime and so the only leads open for our hero are following up on those strange events to see if any, or all, may be connected with the death.

The results are really quite intriguing and often the information we learn only makes the events seem stranger. Take, for instance, what we learn about the phone call that Aubrey receives to arrange the meeting which begs a further series of questions. Similarly Flynn plays beautifully with the idea of the psychic, creating a strong atmosphere both during Aubrey’s interview and subsequently in Bathurst’s questioning of them. The reader may well wonder quite how they could know as much as they do and wonder if they may possibly have some powers after all.

The plot that Flynn develops arguably reads more like a thriller than a typical detective story, though there are many opportunities for the reader to use their deductive skills to get ahead of the narrative. I suspect it would be hard though for anyone to predict quite where this story is ultimately headed until they are quite some way into the novel. That journey is, of course, a large part of the fun.

While some of the moments of deduction feel smart and creative, there are a few points I felt that Bathurst is made to seem brilliant by making MacMorran, in contrast, appear quite unobservant. One of the strongest examples of this for me was a visual clue, given to the reader, in the reproduction of the text from a torn note. Bathurst’s reasoning in that scene is perfectly fine but MacMorran’s fawning over his brilliance, rather than building up the character’s achievement seems to serve to make it feel like our hero is very late to tell us something we have likely already figured out for ourselves.

I liked a lot of what happens in this story though I think there are some points where Flynn’s language is distractingly odd. One akward sentence that stood out particularly to me was when Bathurst makes a comment about a blind person needing to utilize their other ‘sense assets’ to compensate for their lack of sight. Still, for the most part it works quite nicely.

Perhaps the aspect of the story I appreciate most though is its willingness to break conventions and expectations. I particularly enjoyed the way the story references some other great fictional detectives, even having some appear directly in the book’s wonderfully inventive, if utterly far-fetched, denouement.

The Verdict: This is, ultimately, primarily a fun read and I am glad I gave it a try. While it lacks the inventiveness of some of Flynn’s other plots I have read and reviewed here, there is plenty to entertain. Still, for those new to the author I might suggest checking out one of his other novels instead.

Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery is the authority on Brian Flynn and, of course, they pen the introductions found in the Dean Street Press reprints. They describe this one as a ‘fine outing for Bathurst, loads of fun’ and explain why one aspect of this book’s denouement is very unusual if not unique.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests that while some aspects of the plot don’t stand up to more detailed scrutiny, it is another example of ‘Flynn’s mission to simply write good, imaginative and above all entertaining detective fiction’.

The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The cover to the American Mystery Classics reprint (2022) of The Cape Cod Mystery.

Originally published 1931
Asey Mayo #1
Followed by Death Lights a Candle

Meet Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Settled down from his former life as a seafaring adventurer, Asey is a Jack-of-all-trades who uses his worldly knowledge, folksy wisdom, and plain common sense to solve the most puzzling crimes to strike the peninsula. And in this, his first case, Asey finds himself embroiled in a scandal that will push his deductive powers to their limits.

A massive heatwave is scorching the Northeast, and vacationers from New York and Boston flock to Cape Cod for breezy, cool respite. Then a muckraking journalist is found murdered in the cabin he’s rented for the season, and the summer holiday becomes a nightmare for the local authorities. There are abundant suspects among the out-of-towners flooding the area, but they ultimately fix their sights on beloved local businessman Bill Porter as the murderer―unless Asey Mayo can prove him innocent and find the true killer. 

Our expectations coming to a book can definitely affect our experiences reading it. I have suggested before that my slightly underwhelmed reaction to Malice Aforethought may well have been a consequence of people telling me for several years that I was certain to love it. After so much build-up, the hype was so great that the reality of the book was unlikely to live up to what I had imagined it to be.

I experienced a similar sort of effect when coming to Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery. Admittedly this was not the positive sort of hype but rather some recent interactions with other classic crime fans who were not glowing in their sentiments about other books in this series. Still, I had paid for the thing and when it turned up I was curious enough to give it a couple of chapters and I was initially quite pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I came to it with no preconceptions whatsoever.

The story is set in Cape Cod where Prudence and her young niece Betsy have recently acquired a small holiday home and invited a few friends to stay. The murder takes place in a neighboring property where a bestselling author is found dead, his body covered with a sheet. Unfortunately the local sheriff, a former policeman from Boston who works as a grocery clerk, seems out of his depth and quickly settles on Betsy’s beau, a local businessman named Bill.

While there are flaws with the sheriff’s case, he seems settled on Bill’s guilt. Prudence talks with Asey Mayo, a sharp-witted local handyman who had once travelled the world as a sailor, and the pair decide to try and prove Bill’s innocence by doing a little sleuthing of their own…

Let’s start with the series’ setting because I think that this is one of the most inspired aspects of the book. One of the great things about the idea of setting a mystery series on Cape Cod is that you have the opportunity to have both that country, small town vibe married to some of the anonymity that comes with living somewhere where so many of the people are vacationing. This not only allows the author to introduce whole new casts of characters between books, it also enables the author to play with questions of identity – in the case of this book prompting us to consider who may have actually known the victim.

While I may not have been to Cape Cod, I did feel that Taylor provides the reader both with a sense of the physical space but also the rhythms of life there during the season. There are some neat observations about the way local businesses adjust to cater for their temporary residents and I enjoyed getting to know some of the colorful locals such as that sheriff and also the rather full-of-himself doctor.

I also quite enjoyed some of the early instances of our heroes engaging in simple, logical thinking. A prime example would be the short series of inferences that Prudence is able to make about the body to suggest murder from a few details of the circumstances in which it is found. I quickly found that my expectations were raising and I was quite hopeful that further logical sleuthing would follow.

As I spent more time with the sleuth, Asey Mayo, however I began to find myself frustrated with his folksy manner and the pacing of the story. Part of that is, no doubt, because I tend to dislike rendering dialect with phonetic spellings. We are told early on that Asey speaks in a very distinctive way, dropping whole parts of words, and while the spellings certainly convey that it also meant that I found myself having to slow down at points just to work out what he was saying. Sometimes that was fine as quite a bit of what he says can be quite amusing, but there are points where I found myself wishing that it had been eased back. The voice was strong enough just from the choice of words and sentence structure alone.

Another reason is that Asey is someone who seems to work on hunches and intuition, comparing situations to ones he has experienced before. Now, I think that is a legitimate type of crime-solving intelligence – I certainly don’t object to it with Miss Marple – but it felt that Taylor has her hero fall back on it too often, dulling its impact. That is, in this reader’s opinion, a particular shame as a key moment in the book really leans into that idea and I think it would have had an even greater impact if there had been fewer instances of it.

The final thing that I think doesn’t help is that the mid-section of the novel feels like a bit of a runaround. There certainly are some amusing and clever moments there, such as a very clever trick Asey plays to get someone to talk, but there is also quite a lot of what might be described as ‘business’ or ‘hijinks’. Some of its cute enough but the plot seemed to move at a glacial pace with few moments that shock or take the story in a strikingly different direction.

After finishing I started thinking about Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr and how often their books would feature a second killing. While sometimes those may feel like afterthoughts, that device can help to add interest into the second half of a novel and refocus the reader’s mind. Here the energy starts high but seems to drain away with the details, only really picking up in the final few chapters as we reach our denouement.

That strikes me as a bit of a shame because the actual solution is pretty interesting, particularly with regards the motive. Taylor goes on to enhance that conclusion by hitting some unexpected emotional notes towards the very end, tying things up in a surprisingly satisfying and powerful (if perhaps slightly convenient) way.

Were I judging this story purely on the setup and resolution of the crime I suspect I would be viewing it quite favorably. The problem I have with it though is that question of pacing which just didn’t work for me. It’s possible, of course, that it may just have been a poor match for my reading mood. Unfortunately as much as I liked the two ends of the story, the middle just proved too much of a slog for this reader.

The Verdict: Asey is a colorful sleuth and your enjoyment of this novel will likely reflect how much you like that sort of folksy character. While I think there are some neat ideas at play with the solution, the journey to that point exhausted me.