The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer
Originally published in 1951
Mr Verity #1
Followed by How Doth The Little Crocodile
Shaffer originally published this under the name Peter Anthony.
The little Sussex town of Amnestie had not known a death so bloody since the fifteenth century. And certainly none more baffling to all except Mr Verity. From the moment he appears this bearded giant ruthless inquirer, devastating wit and enthusiastic collector of the best sculpture has matters firmly (if fantastically) under control. Things are certainly complicated, but this is hardly enough to deter Mr Verity. As he himself observes: “when the number of suspects is continually increasing, and the number of corpses remains constant, you get a sort of inflation. The value of your individual suspect becomes hopelessly depreciated. That, for the real detective, is a state of paradise.”
It is always exciting when a new British Library Publishing catalog arrives and I get to look through to see what new releases are coming up. I love to look through and pick out the upcoming titles I am most excited about. Sometimes it is because the author is an old favorite but sometimes it is because there is a title you didn’t expect to see at all. That was the case with The Woman in the Wardrobe by playwright Peter Shaffer.
Shaffer is perhaps best remembered for his plays Equus and Amadeus but he also penned several mystery novels under the pseudonym Peter Anthony, sharing writing duties on later volumes with his brother Anthony Shaffer. This first volume however was apparently written by Peter Shaffer alone. These books have been out of print for a long time so it is exciting that the first has been made available again, complete with Nicolas Clerihew Bentley’s lovely illustrations.
The story begins with Mr. Verity observing a man climb into a bedroom window at the Charter Hotel. Thinking this odd, Verity decides to go inside the Hotel to alert the staff to the unusual behavior. Investigating, they discover the door to the room is locked. Once inside, they find a man shot dead, a woman tied up in the wardrobe and the window locked from the inside.
Mr. Verity, who is apparently already a seasoned amateur sleuth, is drafted in to help Inspector Jackson with his investigation. In practice however he quickly seems to take charge, identifying several suspects and leading the questioning. It is not hard to find people who wanted the victim dead – the problem though is understanding how they were able to lock the door and the window from the inside.
Before I get into talking about the plot itself, I should probably mention that this novel strikes a decidedly comedic tone. In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes how Verity is a ‘jokey version of the Great Detective’ type. I would agree that the character does call back to many of the amateur sleuths of the Golden Age but it is more pastiche than parody. Certainly we should take Verity more seriously than, say, Melville’s Inspector Minto.
Shaffer primarily uses two types of humor in this novel. Much of it is situational, such as the farcical movements of characters back and forth through the supposedly locked room. In his excellent review, Puzzle Doctor rightly suggests that there is something of the West End farce in those scenes and I would agree, although I found it more amusing than raucous.
Incidentally, I was struck when reading this just how well it would probably translate to being adapted into a theatrical production. Much of the action takes place in just a few spaces and most of the important points about the plot are conveyed in conversation rather than description. I never had any difficulty visualizing characters’ movements or actions which is invaluable in any locked room story.
The other strand of humor is more consciously zany, with an attempt to create a sense of the ridiculous. The most obvious example of this is a rather colorful suspect who speaks at length about his obsession with Verity and Jackson – I won’t say exactly what the subject of that obsession is but the passages in which they interact are the most overtly comedic in the novel. I found these pretty funny but I am conscious that they do feel somewhat tangential to the overall plot, particularly given how short the book is.
In addition to being a comical mystery story, The Woman in the Wardrobe is also a locked room mystery. Bob Adey is quoted in the introduction as describing this as ‘the best postwar locked-room mystery… [with] a brilliant new solution’. At this point let me say I agree with the second half of that statement – the solution is very clever indeed – but I disagree with the former.
My issues are largely presentational. Shaffer establishes from a very early point in the novel that while the victim’s room key is locked inside the room, there is a hotel master key unaccounted for. That key would enable anyone to lock the room from the outside, basically undermining the idea that the door is a barrier at all. While I trusted that this would not be the explanation because of Adey’s comment, that master key becomes a bit of a distraction.
My other issue with the locked room is impossible to describe in any details without giving a significant spoiler. The best I can offer is that there is a possible (and fairly obvious) explanation for how the locked door and window could have happened that is dismissed on logical grounds that are, I think, flawed and certainly I found them much less persuasive than Verity or Jackson did.
On the other hand, I do agree with Adey that the actual solution is brilliant (and I will trust him that it was new). Every aspect of that solution is carefully clued and Verity’s explanation given makes perfect sense of each part of the crime scene, overcoming my frustrations about each of the above points. While I do not think that Verity fully disproves the issues I mention above, I think his explanation of his own solution is clever and convincing that ends the novel on a very high note.
The Woman in the Window is a short but entertaining read. I was amused by the comedic elements of the investigation and appreciated the solution which felt clever and imaginative. I enjoyed this enough to hope that the other two Verity stories will follow in the future.
The Verdict: More amusing than raucously funny, but the mystery is solid enough to please puzzle fans.