One by One They Disappeared by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1929
Inspector Collier #1
Followed by The Night of Fear

The Blurb

Elbert J. Pakenham of New York City is among just nine survivors of the sinking of the Coptic – not counting his black cat Jehosaphat. The benevolent Mr. Pakenham has made his fellow survivors joint beneficiaries in his will, his nephew having recently passed away. But it seems that someone is unwilling to share the fortune, as the heirs start to die under mysterious circumstances . . .

Then Mr. Pakenham himself disappears, and Inspector Collier of Scotland Yard suspects dirty work. When a trap is laid that seriously wounds his best friend at the Yard, Superintendent Trask, Collier is certain his suspicions are correct. Into his net are drawn a charming young woman, Corinna Lacy, and her cousin and trustee, Wilfred Stark; a landed gentleman of dubious reputation, Gilbert Freyne, and his sister-in-law, Gladys; an Italian nobleman of ancient lineage and depleted estate, Count Olivieri; and a Bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. But Collier will need some unexpected feline assistance before the case is solved.

The Verdict

A lively tontine tale with some entertaining but rather far-fetched plot developments. While this was the first Collier novel published, I would start with a later title and come back to this.


My Thoughts

There are some elements of golden age mysteries that just seem to excite me. At the top of that list would be any mention of curare, that mysterious and rare poison that every English aristocrat seemed to possess a jar of. Right behind that though would be the tontine will.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term or idea, a tontine will designates a certain group of individuals as the beneficiaries. At the moment of death the surviving members would be paid an equal share of the bequest. This is, of course, mystery fiction gold because you instantly create a situation in which the characters all share an equally powerful motive to remove the other members to increase the size of their portion.

One by One They Disappeared involves just such a will. Elbert Pakenham, a wealthy American, had a narrow escape with death when he and eight other passengers survive the sinking of the Coptic during a transatlantic voyage. Each year he had thrown a dinner for his fellow survivors in England, bestowing them with small gifts. Then, realizing he is aging and that he has no one else to leave the money to, he announces that he has made all of his fellow survivors joint heirs in his will.

This story begins with the dinner the year after this announcement has been made. Pakenham is dismayed to find that only a couple of the survivors show up to that year’s dinner. When one of the survivors dies in a suspicious fall in a place he had no reason to be, Collier suspects foul play and soon discovers that several of the other beneficiaries had also disappeared.

As setups for this sort of story go, I think this gets things off to a promising start. For one thing, I appreciated that we come into this murder plot after it is already well underway. For one thing, it does mean that our sleuth can see a pattern emerging and allows for the suspect pool to be whittled down to a more manageable number.

The sort of informal role that Inspector Collier has at the beginning is a little awkward as he really has no standing to investigate the case at that point. On the other hand, I think Dalton does provide us with some convincing reasons for him to become interested in the case and by the time things get more serious he does have a more formal part to play.

This is, of course, Collier’s first outing as a detective and I was a little surprised that Dalton does not seem to spend much time establishing his character. Instead she really just throws us straight into the case and introduces him as we learn about and follow his efforts to investigate the crime. Still, I think the essential qualities of his character are communicated to the reader in the way we see him deal with the other characters and the consideration he shows throughout the investigation. He is not necessarily a strong character but I think he is a thoroughly likeable one.

The other characters were, for me, a little more inconsistent. Pakenham is certainly an interesting figure and I appreciated the way he is shown to respond to the situation that develops. He ends up playing an important and active role in the story which I did not expect and I think his involvement did lend an extra level of interest to the situation.

The suspects however are a largely different matter. Their personalities and characters are displayed to the reader from their first appearances, making spotting the culprit frustratingly easy. The shadier figures instantly stand out while others can be immediately dismissed because of their involvement in a secondary, romantic plotline.

As with the other Dalton novels I have read, this does have a certain direct quality that helps make it a page-turning read. There is a sense that Collier is constantly edging nearer to catching the killer and while the action in the plot is fairly limited, I did appreciate that there are a few moments of excitement as we near the conclusion.

As for that conclusion, well – I think that the story shares some stylistic elements with the thrillers Christie was writing in this period. That sort of storytelling is not a particular favorite for me and I think there are a few aspects of the explanation that seemed a little confusing but here I cannot go into any more detail without spoiling which, of course, I have no wish to do.

So, where does that leave One by One They Disappeared? I think it is clear that this is an early work and there are a few rougher edges. For instance, the suspects feel a little flat and the decision to pull the story to a conclusion seemed rather arbitrary.

It isn’t bad – I would certainly reach for it ahead of most of those Christie thrillers. What keeps me from a more enthusiastic recommendation is that I have already come across other Dalton novels I liked more. I would far more readily recommend either The Art School Murders and The Condamine Case, both of which feel more refined works. Still, this is a fun and quick read and while I would suggest getting to know Collier through other stories first, this is a good, solid read worth circling back to.

The Condamine Case by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1947
Inspector Collier #12
Preceded by The Longbridge Murders
Followed by The Case of the Dark Stranger

The Blurb

In London, rising young movie director Stephen Latimer learns of a gentrified family in Somerset with an old history of witchcraft and haunting. Scenting an excellent subject for his next film, he visits their ancestral manor.

Pleased with his discoveries, Stephen returns to London, planning to spice up the family legend still further for the film. But he is soon to learn that after his departure Death came to Little Baring.

Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard arrives on the scene, facing a case that concerns not one murder, but two. Whodunit? Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring? Or someone farther afield? And is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?

The Verdict

The mix of vintage film and a mysterious haunting worked for me.


My Thoughts

Having enjoyed myself so much reading Dalton’s The Art School Murders last month I have been keen to explore more of her work. Rather than trying to go through these in a particular order I decided to go for the book that had the most elements that grabbed me. This one won out with its mix of a story of an ancient witchcraft trial, ghosts and the workings of the film industry.

Stephen Latimer is a young British director who has had great success with his first two projects and is now set to develop a third. He receives a proposal to make a film based on historical events that took place in a village in Somerset where a woman conspired to have a rival accused of witchcraft and drowned only to find herself haunted by her.

Latimer travels down to Somerset with his assistant director Evan to research the story and determine how they would film it. They meet with Mr. Condamine and his wife to learn more about the legend and to scout out locations. Things seem to be going well until Condamine suddenly dies after going out on a picnic with his wife and it is found that he had been poisoned.

Dalton’s story takes a while to get to this first murder with much of the opening chapters dedicated to exploring and building up our understanding of the dynamics at play in the Condamine household as well as some of the history of the witch trial and subsequent hauntings. These chapters are suitably atmospheric and I was interested in the story of that earlier crime although its prominence in these early chapters does make those details seem more important than they perhaps are.

While it may have a slow start, Dalton does a fine job of creating an intriguing set of circumstances around this first murder. Some of the questions Inspector Collier will have to contend with include figuring out exactly when the poison was administered as well as whether Condamine was the intended target. The answers to both questions are interesting and I think the situation only becomes more intriguing with the discovery of a second murder.

Dalton’s characters can be broadly split into two categories – the locals and those associated with the film. Most are quite colorfully drawn and make enough of an impression that it is easy to follow who everyone is.

Latimer, the film’s director, struck me as the most interesting of the bunch – in part because of his somewhat caustic manner and relationship with his assistant, Evan. Their relationship is pleasingly complex, at moments affectionate yet at others quite exploitative. Evan recognizes that the director is brilliant but it is clear he does not always enjoy spending time with him.

I think it is fair to criticise the prominence of the film development elements of the story for slowing down its early chapters but I must say that I found its presentation of the film industry in this period to be interesting and handled well. Dalton does a good job of balancing the idea of Hollywood and movie making as being glamorous with the practicalities of standing around waiting for filming or the strong egos involved in creating art.

Inspector Collier makes his introduction to the story relatively late. We are well beyond forty per cent of the way into the novel before he appears to take charge of the investigation. Happily once he does we see him quickly exert his influence and perspective onto the case.

I continue to like Collier a lot as a detective, appreciating those moments in which he shows his consideration or humanity. He is shown to be diligent and attentive, asking perceptive questions and making some critical logical connections from the answers given. He remains a detective who interests me and I hope to read more of his adventures soon.

So, what doesn’t work about this novel? Not much – it is a pretty quick and entertaining read. I think Dalton structures her story very well and I enjoyed seeing how she spun the plot points together, creating a pretty exciting and dramatic build up to its conclusion. Happily that conclusion is built upon some solid deductive reasoning!

Were I to stretch for a problem it would be that the novel’s opening does seem to lack some focus, though I do think it highly entertaining in places. On the whole though, I feel that the various elements are crafted well and the story built to a conclusion I found both clever and satisfying.

It is definitely worth a try if you are curious about Dalton’s work but I might suggest that because of Collier’s late entry in the story it might make sense to pick and try one of his other adventures first if learning about the sleuth is your primary focus in reading mysteries. I certainly enjoyed it enough that I plan further reads in this series. If anyone has read the Collier series I would appreciate any suggestions you can make concerning which to read next.

Second Opinions

Curtis Evans shares his thoughts on this story in an essay on his blog, The Passing Tramp.

The Heel of Achilles by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1950

Doctor Manson #8
Preceded by John Kyleing Died
Followed by Look in at Murder

The Blurb

The trouble began during a holiday in Paignton. When Jack met Mary, his future wife, he also met James Sprogson, a charming villain bent on destroying the couple’s happiness. Mary distrusted Sprogson but Jack regarded him as a good fellow who drank and gambled a little too much, perhaps, but was harmless and likeable. However, Jack’s association with Sprogson was to lead to robbery, blackmail and, at last, murder.

The Verdict

A very solid inverted mystery – though it is stronger on the forensic analysis than in terms of its character development or exploration.


My Thoughts

This past week I have had inverted mysteries on the brain. A big part of the reason for that was my experiencing reading R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone which I found a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As it happens one of the authors of the book I am discussing today, Edwin Radford, was a fan of the Thorndyke mysteries too and this work feels like a conscious homage to those stories.

The Heel of Achilles introduces us to Jack, a young mechanic who is desperately saving so he can afford to open his own garage and get married. He befriends James Sprogson, a man his fiancée instantly recognizes as a disreputable sort but who he dismisses as being just a little fond of his drink. When Jack is invited along on a job to earn something extra he happily agrees, not realizing that he is being invited along on a robbery.

As it happens everything quickly goes wrong and Jack finds himself handed the loot while Sprogson is dragged off to prison. Implicated in the crime, Jack has to start a new life for himself under an assumed name and for a while he seems to be safe. That is until he runs into Sprogson again and receives the first in a series of blackmail demands.

Inevitably Jack comes to realize that he cannot go on making payments to Sprogson and decides that he must get rid of his tormentor. Being a reader of mystery novels, Jack recognizes some of the common mistakes made by murderers in stories and he is determined not to repeat them.

I think blackmail works well as a motivation for murder in inverted mystery stories because it can engender some sympathy for the murderer. Particularly if, as with Jack, they never intended to commit a serious crime in the first place and have no easy way out of the mess they find themselves in. We may not agree with his choice but I think readers would understand his desperation.

I also appreciated that the authors made the murder a planned action and consciously avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls. In quite some detail they cover each of the problems Jack predicts and the actions he takes to erase or alter evidence to suit the story he is trying to tell. His plan is intricate and yet the alert reader will probably detect several loose ends. The question is what will lead the detectives to Jack?

The Radfords adopt a similar structure to that used by Freeman in his inverted short stories, breaking his novel into two sections. The first thirty percent of the novel portrays the events leading up to and including the crime being committed, following the actions of the murderer. The remainder of the story, wonderfully titled ‘Cherchez l’homme’, is told exclusively from the perspective of Dr. Manson, the forensic investigator.

Once again I was put in mind of Freeman and in particular his detective Dr. Thorndyke when Manson enters the story. Most obviously, both men are forensic scientists but each also carries a small mobile laboratory in a case to the crime scenes. Their personalities are, however, a little different as Manson strikes me as a more sharp and prickly personality than Thorndyke.

One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.

The choice to only give us the perspective of the investigator in this second half of the book makes a lot of sense given the nature of the crime and Jack’s plan. It does mean though that the Radfords never really explore the impact of the crime on the person committing it which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly is fairly unusual for a work of this length to pass over the opportunity to develop a cat-and-mouse game between the criminal and detectives.

It is perhaps this aspect of the book that is most responsible for making me feel it must have been a little old-fashioned, even at the point when it was first published. It feels much more focused on the business of forensic investigation than exploring crime as an experience and when an emotional component is introduced, the tone struck is more in keeping with melodrama than an attempt at realism.

I would advise potential readers of this to ignore the original publication date and instead consider this in the context of a few other forensically-minded characters. If you enjoy Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories or John Rhode’s Dr. Priestley mysteries, I suspect you will find a lot to admire and enjoy here. The presentation of the forensic techniques and applied reasoning are very good and while the storytelling style is slow and deliberate, each development in the case is clearly explained and explored.

The Art School Murders by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published in 1943
Inspector Hugh Collier #10
The publication order of the Collier stories seems a little confusing to me – in his excellent introduction to the book, Curtis says it is the tenth by his reckoning so we’ll go with that.

The Blurb

Artists’ model Althea Greville was, in life, known as something of a femme fatale. But the phrase becomes only too literal. What initially appears to be red paint leads instead to Althea’s dead body, murdered in Morosini’s renowned school of art. Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard is called in, but two more murder victims follow, one of them a female student at the school, stabbed to death at a cinema. After many a twist, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle to identify a murderer operating under cover of England’s World War Two black-out.

The Verdict

A quick-paced and entertaining detective story.


My Thoughts

I am always excited to see when Dean Street Press announce a new set of titles, particularly when they feature an author that is entirely new to me. Recently they have started releasing some works by Moray Dalton (a pen name for Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) and, of course, I jumped right on them – picking up several titles.

The one that grabbed my attention most was this title, in large part because of its setting. For one thing the case is set during wartime – more on that in a moment – but also because of the art school setting. One of the ways I have spent my enforced confinement to the home over the past month is filming and editing art instructional videos for my wife’s students so I find myself in an arty mood at the moment.

The novel is set at an art school located about forty minutes outside London in the small market town of Scanbridge. The school is owned by an Italian artist whose interest in the institution has waned over the years as he makes only infrequent visits, preferring the more vibrant cultural and social life found in the capital. As a consequence the school is facing a bleak future thanks to the effect of the war and the ‘absurdly high’ fees.

It opens with the wife of the building’s caretaker unlocking and opening up the school building in an early November morning only to discover a woman lying dead on the classroom floor. One of the masters identifies her as the life model he had engaged from London and the local police, recognizing (and perhaps hoping) that the crime may have roots outside their jurisdiction, decides to send for Scotland Yard to investigate.

While the prospect of the locked school building may sound like the starting point for a locked room mystery, I should stress that it is acknowledged early in the book that there are several individuals who possess keys to the building. Those questions of access do factor into the mystery but are by no means a key focus of the story.

Instead Inspector Collier’s focus falls on exploring the history of the murdered woman and that of the individuals who make up the school’s teaching staff and student body. While the student body is a reasonably large group of characters, our attention is narrowed to just a couple of witnesses (the mechanism for that is a little contrived but I will take a little streamlining over the prospect of dozens of identical interactions).

This is not the sort of mystery that presents the reader with much in the way of physical clues – most of the information gained comes in conversation. Being so interview-driven works to the book’s advantage as Dalton’s detective, Collier, is charming and highly personable, using his interpersonal skills to ease people into revealing information to him.

The second murder, when it comes, added an additional layer of interest for me and leads to some of the book’s strongest exchanges. For instance, it is following that incident that Collier finally manages to meet with Mr. Morosini who proves a rather highly strung interviewee and who is easily the book’s most colorful character.

The aspect of the book that intrigued me most however was its setting and Dalton’s presentation of how wartime conditions affect both the fortunes of the school and the investigation. The latter is particularly well done in moments such as when Collier acknowledging that some usual approaches to crime solving, such as discreetly tailing a suspect, are just impossible in the blackout.

This brings me, a little reluctantly, to discuss the book’s conclusion which I have somewhat mixed feelings about. The reveal of the killer struck me as a little anticlimactic, in part because I think there is an argument to be made that Collier really doesn’t do much to bring that about. He certainly connects the dots at the right time but I was not entirely convinced that the character could have known for sure without that. That being said, other aspects of the conclusion make it quite an exciting and dramatic read.

The motive, when revealed, is powerful and a secondary plot is wrapped up in a way that I felt was quite pleasing and gave some characters an appropriately happy ending. It made for a nice closure to the story and I appreciated the way Dalton gives us a glimpse into how some characters’ lives have changed since they were caught up in The Art School Murders.

Overall, I found this to be a quick, engaging and entertaining read. I have, of course, indulged my Dean Street Press habit and purchased all of the other Moray Dalton titles currently available. Based on this experience I am very confident that I will be reading more from this author in the next few months.

Further Reading

This superb essay from Curtis Evans, the writer of the introduction to the Dean Street Press edition, touches on both blackouts in crime fiction and this book specifically.

The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes

bungalow
The Bungalow Mystery
Annie Haynes
Originally Published 1923

One of my goals for my second year of blogging has been to seek out authors whose work I have never tried before. Annie Haynes is one such author. I have stockpiled eBook copies of her work during sales and promotions from Dean Street Press but had never got around to trying any of the novels before now.

The Bungalow Mystery was the first of her novels to be published, coming out in 1923 – the same year as her first Inspector Furnival novel, The Abbey Court Murder.

The story’s protagonist is Doctor Lavington, a recent arrival in the village of Sutton Boldon. He is summoned by his neighbor’s housekeeper who tells him that her master is dying. Upon arriving he discovers that the man, a reclusive and wealthy artist, is already dead and has been shot through the head. There is no sign of any pistol in the room and the position of the entry wound shows that it could not be self-inflicted. He decides it must be murder and sends the distressed housekeeper to summon the Police.

During the period in which he is alone in the room he discovers that a young woman is hiding, crouched against the wall. She tells him that she is desperate not to be found there and begs for his assistance in escaping undetected. Ignoring the suspicious circumstances in which he finds her, he tells her to hurry along to his home where she will pretend to be his actress cousin who has arrived to take part in a theatrical skit. This would be a fairly rash decision even if he believed her to be innocent but we later learn that he thinks she did the deed which I think elevates it to downright reckless.

This is our starting point for a story that I think falls somewhere between the detective and sensation fiction styles of mystery. For most of the novel we follow Lavington and his perception of these events but given he already believes he knows this woman was guilty, he is not actively gathering evidence of the crime. At several points however we see the police at work, getting a sense of their thoughts on the case and this allows us to put the information we gain from Lavington into perspective and to make our own deductions on what happened.

The blending between these two styles is effectively done and I think Haynes balances the elements of each quite well, though some elements were not to my own taste. I did not particularly care for the romance subplot, finding it not particularly romantic as it is based on physical attraction and a sense of chivalry rather than any emotional connection between the characters. Others may feel differently.

On the other hand, I enjoyed learning what had happened at The Bungalow and more about the various suspects involved in the case. While the details of the case are relatively simple, Haynes is able to use misdirection very effectively to make it appear much more complex than it is. As Kate at CrossExaminingCrime points out in her review, questions of identity play a significant role in the story and Haynes is adept at finding different and interesting ways to play with this idea.

Haynes writes in an entertaining and engaging style and while I may not have been swept up in the romance, I found most of the characters interesting and enjoyed learning more about their backstories and relationships to each other. These characters seem pleasingly three-dimensional, particularly Lavington’s friend and employer Sir James Courtenay who is struggling to adjust to life after losing both his legs in a railway accident.

This railway accident serves as a transitional point in the story for a few reasons, most of which are too spoilery to discuss but after it takes place Haynes chooses to advance her story forward two years. Following this we learn that the Police have received some new information that has caused them to reopen the case bringing fresh scrutiny to Lavington’s account of what happened that day.

In some respects this time jump works quite nicely as it emphasizes the problems the police have cracking the case and it also enables Haynes to present several of the characters in different circumstances. Unfortunately I found the reason why it took two years for this new information to be revealed highly suspect and I was even less convinced when Haynes comes up with a similarly unlikely rationale to explain another delay in someone coming forward.

Once you get past this particular piece of contrivance, I think Haynes does a very good job of providing the clues the reader will need to solve the case. I was pleasantly surprised when I worked out who the killer must be and satisfied by the explanation of what had happened and why. It makes for a strong conclusion to the novel and Haynes is able to tie up the various characters’ stories nicely at the end.

Not every aspect of The Bungalow Mystery was to my taste but I did appreciate that Haynes tells an interesting and engaging story that should have appeal for fans of puzzle and sensation mystery fiction alike. I will look forward to trying another one of the Haynes novels I own at some point soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In the medical field (Who)

The Case of Sir Adam Braid by Molly Thynne

Braid
The Case of Sir Adam Braid
Molly Thynne
Originally Published 1930

The Case of Sir Adam Braid is the third Molly Thynne mystery I have read and I must confess that having enjoyed my previous two experiences I am surprised it has taken me so long to return to her. This novel was written earlier than either of those novels and is the last of her standalone mysteries.

The case concerns the murder of an artist, Sir Adam Braid, in his flat one night. His servant had left him listening to the wireless while he went out for a drink. When he returns he discovers Sir Adam in his chair with a deep knife wound in the back of his neck.

The puzzle is logistically quite complex with the key questions being the time of death and how could someone gain access to a supposedly locked flat. Sir Adam’s manservant claims that he left his master alone with the door locked yet several witnesses claim to have heard Sir Adam talking with a man and a woman during the time he was gone. As the investigation progresses the reader acquires information about characters’ movements and has to piece them together to work out who had opportunity.

Thynne provides us with several suspects, many of whom reside in the building. Their motivations are often quite weak however and the reader will quickly whittle down their suspects list to just a few names.

One name that we are repeated told won’t be on it is Sir Adam’s niece Jill, though the evidence against her seems quite compelling. For one thing, while she was supposed to inherit his fortune, Sir Adam had taken offence at her request for an advance on that inheritance and planned to cut her out of his will completely. He dies before he can carry out his intentions and so the fortune would still go to her in its entirety, significantly easing her money difficulties.

The reason that Jill is not to be seriously considered will be quite familiar to Golden Age readers – she is initially presented to us as sweet and incapable of murder by our two detective characters, clearly establishing her to be one of the novel’s romantic leads. Both characters are certain of her innocence in spite of the facts and so proving that she did not do it will become their priority. This device is quite charming and yet I was struck by the feeling that while it adds some tension to the story they are assuming a lot based on appearances and demeanor.

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime puts this really well in her review where she talks about the role prejudices play in this narrative. Jill cannot be guilty because she is attractive and, even when things look bleak for her, the two detective characters are predisposed to believe her or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. Other characters are immediately identified as being sketchy or not to be trusted and the two detectives’ hunches usually prove to be correct.

Though it can be a little frustrating to find that the characters do not exhibit much in the way of hidden depths or facets, I enjoyed discovering their roles in the mystery and how they responded to coming under suspicion. While I felt fairly confident of the guilty party based on their personality, working out the mechanics of how they committed it took me longer.

While Fenn cuts quite a bland figure conveying competency but not a lot of personality, Thynne does invest some time in building up the character of Dr. Gilroy, establishing him as likeable and energetic in his pursuit of the truth as well as a keen advocate for Jill. At a few points Thynne has her two investigators adopt different approaches to the case and I appreciated that Gilroy is able to take some actions that Fenn cannot because of his need to adhere to Police rules and protocol.

Unfortunately while I found the investigation entertaining, the revelation of the motive behind the crime disappoints. I think part of the reason that it was so easy to narrow down the suspects is that only a handful have clear motives for committing the crime. Add in that we are repeatedly assured that we should not suspect Jill and really only two figures remain. I do think it is a little disappointing to identify the killer through process of elimination based on motive rather than by piecing other clues together and so I think this is the weakest aspect of the novel.

Happily I felt the logistical puzzle element of the novel was much more effective. While I think one aspect of the solution will likely be easily identified by seasoned detective fiction readers long before Chief-Inspector Fenn thinks of it, it is still enjoyable to see how he is able to piece the various facts together. Fans of the plodding, diligent style of detective will likely appreciate the attention paid to the serial numbers of banknotes, the faintness of carpet impressions and the reconciliation of alibis.

Although I do not think this mystery is as entertaining as The Crime at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, which remains my favorite of the Thynnes I have read so far, I do think this book’s plot is very cleverly and tidily constructed. In the end though that tidiness keeps it from ever truly surprising the reader. Perhaps if the killer’s motivations had been a little more complex or unexpected it might have given the conclusion a little extra lift or added excitement. Still, for those in search of a solid and entertaining puzzle mystery I think this does deliver enough to make it worth seeking out.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In a Locked Room (Where)

It Might Lead Anywhere by E R Punshon

ItMightLeadAnywhere
It Might Lead Anywhere
E. R. Punshon
Originally Published 1946
Bobby Owen #22
Preceded by There’s A Reason for Everything
Followed by Helen Passes By

As I noted in my review of another E R Punshon novel, Diabolic Candelabra, I have been guilty of taking advantage of introductory pricing and sales from Dean Street Press, amassing a large digital library I have barely started to read. While it has taken me nearly half a year to get around to giving another book in the series a try, I came to It Might Lead Anywhere feeling quite intrigued by its premise.

Policeman Bobby Owen hears word of a religious riot taking place in a nearby village and, though it is not in his jurisdiction, he heads over to try to break it up. He discovers that among the villagers is Duke Dell, a former boxer who now passionately preaches what he calls The Vision. His views frustrate many within the community but one of the villagers, Alfred Brown, seems to have been drawn to him. In the course of the riot that Bobby witnesses Dell thrown Brown into the river with such force that his head begins to bleed.

The next day Brown is discovered dead in his cottage by a police officer who happens to be passing the home and notices the wireless playing and the door ajar. Entering the home he sees that Brown has been brutally beaten to death with a poker. Though he has no authority in the area, Bobby decides he will consult the area’s Chief Constable and share the information he has. In the course of that conversation he manages to manipulate the Chief into asking Bobby to assist in their investigations.

The sequence in which Bobby subtly convinces Chief Constable Spencer to invite him onto the case is one of my favorites in the whole novel, in part because it brilliantly captures the fragile egos and concern for status that exists in many forms of local government. The tentative negotiations that take place are superbly observed and I liked the working relationship that is established between the two men in the first part of the book.

One of my biggest complaints about Diabolic Candelabra was that I felt I hardly knew Bobby Owen by the end of the novel. While It Might Lead Anywhere still places its focus on the mystery and adventure, I think the novel takes more time to develop the character and showcase his personality. Here we see his method at work, particularly in the way he interacts with the various suspects. Though he is not a large personality here, I think his methodical approach works well and his actions seem logical and clear even if he seems to be making little progress with his investigation for much of the novel.

I continue to enjoy his interactions with his wife, Olive, though she only features in a few short sections of the novel. Their interactions do feel like those of a couple who know each other well and I appreciate that Olive does have some input into the investigation, although there is no decisive contribution here. I did find Bobby’s apparent lack of awareness of why his wife was not thrilled to hear that an attractive young woman had flirted with him to be quite entertaining and I do hope that the next Punshon I read features her more prominently.

I have been quite sparing with my description of the plot because this is not a story with a lot of incident or development and so I do not want to reveal too many of this book’s secrets. In spite of the simplicity of this case, I did enjoy the way the story unfolded and I think the case is certainly intriguing, if not particularly dynamic. I would agree with TomCat’s assessment in his excellent review that the plotting is ‘slender’ and just focused on a single problem.

I would add that the cast of suspects is relatively thin and one character can be quickly identified as the likely party. While questions of motive and means remain, this does mean that those approaching this in the hope of a good puzzle may feel a little disappointed in what they find.

In spite of the quite simple plot, I still found that there was plenty to interest me here. While this was published a year after World War Two ended, it is set during the final months of the conflict and it reads like a wartime novel. Having followed PuzzleDoctor’s Do Mention The War series of blog posts about novels written during the conflict I found myself paying more attention than I would normally do to details relating to blackout regulations (lifted in the later days of the war), petrol rationing, fears of invasion as well as a very spam-heavy dinner menu (spam jardiniere, omlette au spam and spam pie all feature – yum!).

Another aspect of the book that pleased me was the characterization which I felt was pretty strong. While one character did stand out to me as the likely murderer, the other suspects were each interesting in their own way and I enjoyed discovering their stories and seeing how they interacted with each other.

While It Might Lead Anywhere is not a classic mystery novel, I did find it to be an enjoyable read and a more satisfying and coherent experience than Diabolic Candelabra. My hope is that when I next return to Punshon I will find a slightly more complex and satisfying mystery along with the atmosphere and the characterization.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a small village (Where)

Crime On My Hands by George Sanders

GeorgeSanders
Crime on My Hands
George Sanders
Originally Published 1944
George Sanders #1
Followed by Stranger at Home

After years of playing detectives in the Falcon and Saint series of films, actor George Sanders is fed up and looking for a change. Fortunately his agent has lined up a role in a historical epic which is not only lucrative, it is exactly the sort of part George is itching to play.

At first everything is going well but during a big battle scene an extra is discovered shot to death behind the cameras. George suspects that this is no accident, particularly once it is revealed that the murder weapon was one of the guns he was wearing during that scene, and starts his own investigation.

The murderer will not stop with just one body and before the end of the book several other characters will be dead. It’s Shere Khan-age!

Before I share my own (rather limited) thoughts on this book, I’d like to suggest that you read this post by TomCat about the authorship of the two George Sanders mysteries and the identities of his ghost writers. I can’t offer any insight about the authorship of the book myself but, for what it’s worth, I think the ghosts do a pretty good job here of making the prose read like Sanders albeit with the occasional noir-y turn of phrase or expression.

The setup for the mystery is fun and does provide a semi-credible reason for George to get involved as a sleuth, even if it is predicated a little on George making some foolish choices early on and having to live with them.

While I think you do not need to know Sanders’ work in order to enjoy this story, those who are familiar with him will doubtlessly get the most out of the novel. Though Sanders may not have really done much of the writing himself, the novel does touch upon some of his other talents resulting in a book that feels like it was based around Sanders rather than a mystery story in which a famous name was just grafted onto a pre-existing narrative. In short, this feels like it actually reflects Sanders’ personality in a meaningful way.

It is also pretty funny. One of the running gags throughout the novel is that everyone expects George will be an excellent detective based on his screen performances including George himself. For instance, when he first investigates Severance Flynne’s corpse he gets into a squatting position near the body and seems to expect that a clue will just leap out at him. He also frequently attempts to lay traps for the murderer but none of these seem to go to plan, often seeming to only make him seem more suspicious to the local Sheriff.

This make for fun amateur detective fare and I think it should appeal to those who enjoy the actorly, theatrical aspects of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series or who liked Alan Melville’s Quick CurtainCrime on my Hands is more satisfying as a detective story than Melville’s adventure manages to be but the solution is less interesting than the journey. Part of the reason for this is that there is little surprise in the way this story is resolved as a key part of the ending is signposted throughout the novel.

While I think this is a little disappointing, I found the journey to get to that ending to be highly enjoyable. If you come to this book not expecting a great puzzle mystery but just an entertaining adventure story I think you are unlikely to be disappointed.

Incidentally, on a related note, if you are unfamiliar with Sanders’ work I can heartily recommend A Scandal in Paris. It’s a historical comical adventure set in France that loosely retells the story of Eugene Vidocq who would become the first director of the Sûreté Nationale and head of the first private detective agency. It is Sanders at his most charming and funny.

The same director also collaborated with Sanders on the superb film Lured which starred Lucille Ball as an actress who goes undercover to find a murderer. Sanders plays a revue producer who becomes a key suspect in that film and while his role is more limited in that film, it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a performance of any sort (When)

Diabolic Candelabra by E R Punshon

DiabolicCandelabra
Diabolic Candelabra
E. R. Punshon
Originally Published 1942
Bobby Owen #17
Preceded by The Dark Garden
Followed by The Conqueror Inn

For all my complaining about my ever-growing pile of books to read, I rarely have more than a few physical books on my nightstand at a time these days. My problems, as they are, lie more in the digital realm.

Really this is Dean Street Press’ fault. Not only are their eBooks typically quite reasonably priced, they also routinely offer a free eBook or three to tempt readers to try a new author. I am not sure how I came to acquire a handful of Punshon novels but they have been sat on my Kindle for a few months and, in a lull between my normal authors, I thought I should just pick one to get things started.

After finishing Diabolic Candelabra and reading a few of the reviews from fellow bloggers I am wondering if I may have picked the wrong Punshon to start with as this seems anything but typical of the author’s work. In spite of not adhering to the traditional puzzle mystery structure, I did find there quite a few things to enjoy here though, like PuzzleDoctor, I found myself a little frustrated at times.

The novel begins with the detective, Bobby Owen, being asked by his wife to use his professional talents to help track down the creator of some rather unusual chocolates. A friend of hers is interested in acquiring the recipe or, failing that, a big batch to sell at her church for a fundraiser.

Bobby agrees to take a trip with his wife to the forest of Wychwood to look for the reclusive chocolatier. They discover her living in a cottage in the depths of the forest with her mother who is an invalid, her roguish stepfather and a younger sister who is left to run free in the forest. They also learn that the chocolatier uses an ingredient prepared by a hermit who lives even deeper in the forest.

When they go in search of the hermit they discover that his hut is empty and there are traces of blood in the earth and signs that it has been searched. Bobby is suspicious that there has been some violence carried out in the hut but the lack of a body raises further questions. Could the hermit’s disappearance be linked in some way with the theft of two El Greco paintings and silver candelabra some decades earlier or is it to do with his herbal remedies and extracts?

This is a sprawling, seemingly unfocused story and that description only covers some of the elements at play in this mystery. While I trusted that these seemingly disparate plot points would be brought together towards the end of the novel, it did strike me that the detective really isn’t actually investigating any solid crime for much of the book and is snooping around on the basis on a hunch that some crime may eventually turn up.

The opening third of the book therefore feels odd to me. In some ways that strangeness is a positive – I liked the way the forest becomes an unsettling and mysterious location for Bobby and I appreciated the subtle parallels to elements of the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. On the other, I felt restless as I waited and waited for a body or painting to finally show up.

Normally that would not be an issue for me and so I can only think that I may have read this on the wrong day or in the wrong mood. After all, one of my favorite mystery films is Blow-Up which ends with us still pondering the question whether anything actually happened at the start of the movie or not. Here at least we are served something tangible, even if it comes late in the book.

The other reason I suspect that my griping has more to do with me than the book is that Punshon manages to stitch these seemingly very disparate elements together very well towards the end of the novel and so it becomes clear that the seeming lack of structure early on is an intentional deception on the part of the author. Some of the connections are likely to be obvious to the reader such as a matter of identity while some of the others took a little longer to come into focus. Normally this is exactly the kind of detailed, interwoven plotting that impresses me.

Similarly I will say that I loved Punshon’s characters. This book is stuffed with some really strange, curious people who live on the frontier between civilization and wilderness. As so many others have commented, the little feral girl Loo is a particular delight and I thought the conversations she has with Bobby were the highlights of the novel for me. Though she is running wild, she is still smart and logical – just in an untrained way (Doctor Who fans – think what Leela would have been like as a child) and I appreciated that she is given meaningful things to do rather than just be a comedic or atmospheric element of the story.

On the other hand, I ended the book with very little sense of who Bobby was other than he gets absorbed in the mysteries he is working to solve and can rely on the support of his caring wife. Once again I feel that this is possibly simply a reflection that this book may not be a typical Bobby Owen mystery – other reviewers have noted that this stands out as a change of style and pace – so I may appreciate it more were I to come to it with a better knowledge of the character.

One thing I can be sure of however is that the final solution is drab and far less clever than anything that has come before it. Let’s leave to one side the rather splendid resolution to where a character has disappeared to, the identity of the main villain is all too obvious and so the moment of revelation felt anticlimactic. Nor could I marvel at the detective’s logic or cleverness in proving it as this is one of those stories where the villain really reveals themselves. Such endings only really satisfy me when they are not who I expected which is sadly far from the case here.

Where does that leave me? Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s certainly material and ideas I liked here very much and I will agree with those readers who found the setting effective and inspiring. I enjoyed reading the book and felt parts of it worked tremendously well. My problem was that it felt more of an adventure than a mystery to me and so I was left feeling frustrated for much of the novel and maybe if I read this on another day it may have bothered me less.

Though I didn’t love Diabolic Candelabra the way I hoped, I did find things to admire here and I do plan on reading some others from this series. I may even eventually revisit it to see if I feel differently. Finally I’d encourage anyone curious about this book to read the two very different linked reviews above, particularly TomCat’s, for some alternative perspectives on this.

Death in the Dentist’s Chair by Molly Thynne

death-in-the-dentists-chair
Death in the Dentist’s Chair
Molly Thynne
Originally Published 1932
Dr. Constantine #2
Preceded by The Crime at the Noah’s Ark
Followed by He Dies and Makes No Sign

I had my first encounter with Molly Thynne and her amateur sleuth Dr. Constantine in the run up to Christmas with The Crime at the Noah’s Ark – a fun festive mystery where the suspects and sleuths are all snowed in together. Thynne followed that story with Death in the Dentist’s Chair which was to be the second of the three novels to feature Dr. Constantine. Here he has graduated to being a sort of consultant to the Police though he happens to have been a witness of sorts in this case.

The novel opens with Constantine as one of several patients waiting to be seen by their dentist. Lottie Miller, a retired actress, is the next patient to be seen by Dr. Davenport but when he steps out of the room to make an adjustment to her dentures, he returns to find that the room has been locked. When he finally succeeds in breaking into the room he finds her dead with her throat savagely cut by a strange blade.

Before anyone gets too excited, forget the mention of a locked room – we are not in impossible crime territory here! Our focus instead should be on the question of who had the opportunity and the knowledge of the floor plan of the dentist’s office and of Mrs. Miller’s movements to commit the crime when most of the suspects were sat in the waiting room together. A further complication is added when a second murder is found to have been committed with a similar blade yet it is not clear why the two crimes would be connected.

I found the initial set-up to this story to be quite intriguing although I was a little surprised at how quickly the action moves beyond the actions in the dentist’s office. In the latter half of the story I felt puzzled about where things were headed and while I think Thynne provides a solidly reasoned solution in the end, it comes about so abruptly that I had to reread sections to check that I hadn’t missed something.

Detective Arkwright and Dr. Constantine are both working towards the same end and are friends yet there is also a sort of friendly rivalry between the two. Constantine keeps quiet about some of the leads he is pursuing and there are several moments in the book where Arkwright realizes that he is on the same trail as his friend. This relationship echoes one of the elements of the previous Constantine investigation that I found most pleasing – the attempts by some of the investigating characters to understand and interpret the actions of their colleagues – and I appreciated the little jealous moments that Arkwright has.

In my previous review I remarked on how much I enjoyed Dr. Constantine as an investigator but while the character’s strengths remain the same, I feel that some of the weaknesses or causes of frustration remain. For instance, we once again find that Constantine refuses to tell Arkwright or the reader what he is doing at a few points in the story. This allows the character to have his moment of brilliance at the end of the story but it does feel like an artificial way of preventing the reader from being able to out-think the sleuth.

One refinement to the character in this book is his reliance on his diligent manservant Manners who, it turns out, is a bit of a dab hand at going undercover. This character is quite charming and though he has quite a mild personality, I appreciated how he was used in the story and that Thynne avoids going too far down the silly costumes and false noses route in doing so.

On the other hand, other aspects of the character still seem a little loosely drawn and there is a sense that this is one of those flawless investigators who just simply seems to know everything. A good example of this comes when an object needs to be evaluated and Constantine is able to put a very accurate estimate of the price in spite of saying that he possesses little interest in the field. It is a quibble but I would rather see some of that information sourced elsewhere and focus on his powers of logical reasoning as in the first novel rather than have him be a walking encyclopedia.

Thynne’s suspects are a fairly mixed bunch of characters though I felt only one really established themselves for me. I did enjoy that she has her characters hit dead ends in their theories about some of them and though that may not make for the most dynamic or dramatic storytelling, it does make the investigation itself seem more credible.

While I liked several elements of Death in the Dentist’s Chair I did feel that it was neither as cleverly plotted nor as interesting a case as The Crime at the Noah’s Ark which I liked considerably more. Though there are some striking moments along the way, the ending here feels a little too abrupt and I felt that too much of Constantine’s deductive process happens in the background. Still, I do fundamentally quite like Constantine and I feel that Thynne’s writing style is really quite entertaining so I will look forward to reading the final installment in the series at some point soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime-solving duo (Who)