Released for Death by Henry Wade

ReleasedReleased for Death is the fifth novel I have read by Henry Wade who has fast become one of my favorite writers from the Golden Age. Part of the attraction for me is that he is one of the principal practitioners of the inverted mystery novel, the type of novel in which the reader knows the guilty party’s identity and has to figure out some other detail of the crime or how they will be caught.

Whether Released for Death constitutes an inverted mystery is perhaps a little debatable. Certainly it is not particularly mysterious as while the guilty party’s identity and reasoning are pretty clear in spite of the author not explicitly stating them until the end of the novel. Nor do we ever share the criminal’s perspective of events. I would suggest though that whether or not it fits the definition, it has enough of the same features to have similar appeal.

The story is split into two with the first half following the perspective of Toddy Shaw who is midway through a prison sentence for assault on a security guard during a robbery. He is working with a pot of boiling paste when another prisoner, James Carson, lunges at one of the guards knocking the hot liquid across Toddy’s face. Instinctively Toddy fights back and while he is pretty badly beaten he inadvertently stops a full-scale riot from breaking out.

Toddy refuses to implicate Carson in the riot but the man swears vengeance against him anyway which places the wardens in the difficult position of deciding what to do about Toddy. Though they have differing views about whether Toddy intended heroism or whether it was luck that his actions stopped the riot, the decision is made to apply to the Home Secretary for an early release which he receives. He returns home to his family and sets about trying to go straight but in spite of his best intentions his situation takes a turn for the worse and he finds he needs money quickly, leading him back down a dark path…

The second half of the novel plays out from the perspectives of the police who are investigating a brutal murder and the kindly, if somewhat naive, prison clergyman who has taken an interest in Toddy’s situation. While we do not have an exact knowledge of how a crime was committed we are aware of his innocence in the matter and the reason why he is suspected. We get to see how both the prosecution and defense view the case and follow the latter’s efforts as they try to find evidence that will prove his innocence.

One complication in the case is that Toddy refuses to give any evidence that will point directly at the guilty party on a point of honor. This creates an interesting problem for one character where they learn who is responsible but will not be able to prove it unless they can find their own proof of that person’s guilt.

It felt clear to me reading this that while Wade is writing a crime story he is also attempting to discuss social issues concerning conditions in prison, the power dynamics within the justice system and the forces leading to recidivism once a prisoner is released. It is a sympathetic portrayal that feels well measured. Toddy’s plight is not the result of one unscrupulous person manipulating a system or any personal failings but rather it reflects the realities of how difficult it can be to find steady work having a police record and how someone can fall into trouble through no direct fault of their own.

Curtis Evans in his wonderful book about Wade, The Spectrum of English Murder, suggests that while well-intentioned, the author’s tone at times appears a little condescending. I agree with Curtis that there are moments at which this clearly does come through though I appreciate that he was trying to write sympathetically about a criminal character at all. Wade attempts to write realistically gritty dialogue for Toddy and while I think he overdoes some of the “Cor!” moments a little, I think he writes with empathy and, for the most part, avoids drifting into sentimentality.

Wade explores these issues quite effectively but it is probably worth noting that he does not offer a prescription for making the system function better. Indeed the interventions of some caring authority figures acting on their own initiative may suggest that he saw the actions of caring individuals to be a stronger remedy to these problems than any specific reform. Alternatively he may have intended to illustrate the issue in the generating discussion.

Unfortunately while the first half of the novel is quite a compelling, if slow-moving, piece of character exploration the second half seems to drift. With no mystery for the reader to solve about how the crime was worked or the motivation the only question remaining is how the guilty party will be brought to justice. Wade depicts the details of police procedure very effectively but there are no real surprises for the reader and while we are made aware of what failure to find evidence would mean for Toddy, I felt the decision to adopt multiple perspectives reduced the sense of urgency and tension in this portion of the book.

Though I feel that Released for Death runs out of steam, I do think that the second half of the novel does have a few strong moments. One of my favorites relates to an attempt by Toddy’s lawyers to find a witness and get her to give a statement. Wade pitches this perfectly, building up to the moment of the interview very well and introduces some practical, realistic procedural issues that take that scene in an unexpected and interesting direction.

The problem is that moments like that one stand out because they are the exception. From the midpoint of the novel it feels pretty clear how things will be resolved and Wade offers little to surprise his readers. Instead the piece relies on the interest generated by its characters to keep readers engaged. The first half works because Toddy is an interesting and ultimately quite likeable protagonist but the second half struggles to find a character as likeable for us to care about or enjoy spending time with.

 

Madame Bluebeard by Bruce Sanders

MadameBluebeardI first learned of Madame Bluebeard in an advert in the back of a copy of Leonard Gribble’s The Inverted Crime. The copy assured me that the book would appeal to his fans presumably, though the advert didn’t state this, because the author Bruce Sanders was also the author Leonard Gribble. This fact passed me by however and so, intrigued by its premise and the (erroneous) idea that I would be trying a new author I sought out an affordable copy.

The novel begins with a West End agent summoning his nephew Brian Farrud to track down Jaline Grey, his most famous client and the star of the Madame Bluebeard films and stage plays who has unexpectedly walked out of her show and vanished. Brian decides to spin a story about a fictitious proposal from an Italian nobleman who has offered her the Brassogli trysting ring to explain her sudden disappearance.

Later Brian is accosted in the street and taken to a country house where he is questioned about this engagement. His captors reveal that she cannot be away while she mulls over the proposal because her body is in the next room. Soon after Anatole Fox, detective fiction author and the assistant director of the International Bureau of Crime Statistics, appears to investigate Brian’s story about the Brassogli trysting ring which he believes he invented and yet turns out to be a real piece of missing jewelry…

The description I give of the plot above only covers the first five or six chapters of the book and can only hint at the novel’s structure. The author constructs his story so that each chapter ends with a significant revelation or plot reversal, spinning the action off in a new direction or shifting our understanding of what is happening. The closest thing I have read to this is Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Skull of the Waltzing Clown and while I think this is less successful, it is hard not to be struck by the author’s ability to take this story to some really unexpected places.

The author achieves this through his characters’ near-constant movement and this, in turn, drives the plot. He cultivates the sense of a race against time as characters track down the answer to one question, at points moving between locations, only to discover a piece of information that prompts another dash for answers. Throughout the novel there is a sense that things develop not because they are logical outcomes of actions but to serve the need to end each chapter with some new revelation. All this frantic movement makes the piece feel unpredictable while some plot developments feel quite far-fetched. I think it is fair to say that it would be impossible for a reader to anticipate any part of the eventual explanation until they are a significant way into the book.

Just as the plot suffers for a lack of focus, the novel also has problems with its protagonist. There are two characters who might conceivably be considered to be the leading figures within the narrative – the young agent Brian and Anatole, the crime writer. On paper both characters ought to be quite appealing but here too I felt a little disappointed.

Of the pair, Brian is a more recognizable type being established as a slick, professional media relations specialist. I actually warmed to him almost immediately as we read how he works to spin Jaline Grey’s disappearance and I quite enjoyed his surprise at discovering that something he believed he had invented appears to exist. But then he largely disappears, ceasing to drive the narrative.

Instead Anatole becomes our point of focus but where Brian was a recognizable type, Anatole feels strangely remote as though we are being kept at arm’s length from him with the author not really sharing the character’s thinking or state of mind with the reader. For instance Anatole’s motives in pursuing the case are kept back for the reader for some time after his first introduction and neither character struck me as being particularly charming or appealing.

All that being said, the novel does pull off a few pretty exciting moments and revelations. The author lays the groundwork early on for several developments that will take place later in the story and while I think that some aspects of the plotting at times feel a little silly and far-fetched, I did appreciate that many of those moments seem to be supported by the text.

The problem for me was that I was unable to look past some of the more sensational elements and ideas within this plot. At no point did I ever really believe in any of these characters, nor did I find the explanation convincing even if the author did provide clues to support it. The constant movement and string of revelations may distract the reader from some of those issues but in the quieter moments I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the bizarre choices characters made and some really unlikely plot developments which only served to pull me out of the story.

Though it has a few points of interest unfortunately I think it is the least successful of the three books I have read from this author to date.

Reprint of the Year: The So Blue Marble

So BlueThose of you who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that I am a fan of the British Library Crime Classics range. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I wouldn’t be here blogging about mystery fiction if I hadn’t come across copies of Family MattersThe Cheltenham Square Murder or Death in the Tunnel. Certainly I wouldn’t have developed an interest in vintage crime fiction.

What that range does so brilliantly is to find authors who have fallen out of the public eye and present it in an attractive and accessible package. Part of that is the sense that the books have been carefully selected, giving the more casual reader confidence that what they will read is in some way important or interesting and that sense is reinforced by the introductory essay that accompanies each release.

Now, you may be wondering why I am talking about a publisher that wasn’t responsible for today’s nomination for Reprint of the Year – Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble. The reason is that while the British Library was successfully doing this for British authors and books, I was surprised that there wasn’t a publisher doing something comparable for vintage American crime fiction, making it accessible to a more casual audience. In stepped Otto Penzler.

Now Otto Penzler is one of those names that will be familiar to most people with an interest in mystery fiction. He is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the founder of The Mysterious Press publishing company. He has edited numerous anthologies of crime and mystery fiction, served on the board of the Mystery Writers of America and written several reference works. He was also a voter in the 1981 Ed Hoch Locked Room Library list! In short, he is a man who knows mystery fiction and is the perfect person to curate a range highlighting the American mystery novel in its various forms.

This range debuted in the Fall of 2018 with the release of six novels. This first batch included titles by Craig Rice, Clayton Rawson, Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer and Mary Roberts Rinehart. While none of the first six authors picked are quite as obscure as Leonard Gribble or Ellen Wilkinson future releases are set to feature less widely-known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge.

Each features an introduction by Penzler discussing the author and where that work fits into their career and they are issued in both softcover and hardcover editions, wrapped in gorgeous, vibrant artwork that gives the range consistency and serious shelf appeal (if you can afford it I would recommend the hardcovers which are sturdily bound). In short, this is the sort of range I can see myself collecting for its own sake, even if it means owning multiple copies of some of books (as I will when The Dutch Shoe Mystery comes out next year).

Now as with last week’s nomination (Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread), I do not propose reviewing the book all over again. For that I’d suggest you check out my review. Only a month has passed since I wrote it and I am pretty confident in saying that my views remain as they were.

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is a story that draws deeply from its urban setting. It begins with a woman accosted on the street by two men who force their way into the apartment that she is borrowing from her ex-husband. Right at the start of the novel you get the sense that this character is isolated even though she is surrounded by people. Characters are able to appear and disappear with no one really noticing.

The central character is a divorced woman who has been able to reinvent herself successfully not once but twice becoming first an actress then a fashion designer. She is placed in a trying and testing situation with no support (in fact the family she has frequently prove to be liabilities) and yet she navigates it completely believably. She is sometimes distressed in the course of the story and yet she always retains her strength and identity, never being written as a damsel in distress. She is a great lead character.

Hughes also gives us a truly memorable pair of villains in the form of Danny and David Montefierrow. These murderous twins combine striking physical descriptions with moments of cold, dispassionate brutality that are quite unlike anything else I have read from the period. I felt a chill every time they appeared. One of the two is clearly a sadist and both have an ability to kill without any remorse but what sticks with me most is the unsettling, violent triangle that forms between the pair and a female character within the narrative.

One of the most interesting things Hughes does is she builds mystery out of incident rather than by defining a question for the reader to answer. From the start of the novel things happen to Griselda and she reacts as best she can with the knowledge that she has yet she does not have enough information to entire understand what is being asked of her. For instance, for much of the novel we do not have much of a sense of what exactly the Montefierrow brothers are seeking or why and that is fine because to Griselda it doesn’t really matter why they are looking for it, only that they believe she has it and that means she is in danger.

By the end of the novel all of the important questions have been answered but the journey to get to those answers is wild and unpredictable. As I say in my review, it’s not just that there are some surprising revelations and developments in the plot but it is the way characters are used and interact with each other. Unpredictable combinations lead the story down some unexpected paths and yet those moments never feel contrived or anything less than satisfying.

All of these aspects of the book combine for a truly striking reading experience. If you have never read the book I strongly recommend it, particularly if you appreciate stories in the thriller and adventure mold, and if you do then you will certainly want to pick up this edition!

The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes

bungalowOne 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 So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

So BlueDorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is one of six vintage titles that were chosen by Otto Penzler to launch his new American Mystery Classics range. Like the British Library’s range, these books each feature an introduction giving some context to the work and information about the author.

Coming months will see titles from familiar names such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen as well as less widely known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge. I think the range looks to showcase the enormous variety to be found in American Golden Age crime fiction.

While I knew that Dorothy B. Hughes is a relatively well-known name in American mystery fiction, this was my first encounter with her work. The So Blue Marble was her first mystery novel although, as the introduction notes, it might be better described as a thriller or work of sensation fiction.

The story concerns Griselda Satterlee, a former actress who has given up show business to become a fashion designer, who is taking a couple of months vacation in New York. Not being fond of hotels, she is staying in her ex-husband’s apartment while he is away on assignment as a news reporter. When she walks home one night she is stopped by two handsome, well-dressed twins who force their way into the apartment. They tell her that they have come in search of the So Blue Marble which they insist she or her ex-husband must possess.

What is the So Blue Marble? Well, in truth it is little more than a MacGuffin albeit with a mystical back story and a rather odd name. The desire to possess it provides motivation for some of the characters but the nature of the object is of little consequence. What is really important is what it means to the Montefierrow twins and what they are willing to do to acquire it.

Danny and David Montefierrow make for a fascinating pair of characters. Initially we see them in terms of their charm and physical perfection but Griselda quickly notices the blankness in their eyes which she finds quite unsettling. We see that they can be quite ruthless and prepared to harm innocent third parties while I think the triangle that forms between them and a woman reads as sadistic and disturbing while it is also hard to understand just who is dominant within the relationship.

We are introduced to a number of other characters who play roles within Griselda’s life that she will seek to protect. She has two sisters, Ann and Missy, each quite fascinating and possessing very distinct personalities. I enjoyed getting to know each of them and was pleased that they played meaningful roles within the plot.

Her ex-husband’s neighbor, an archaeology and art professor at the university, is an intriguing presence and possible romantic interest. He, of course, is concerned that he not do anything that might jeopardize his friendship with Con. One early scene in which she convinces him to stay in the apartment overnight after the incident referred to earlier is really quite charming.

Con, on the other hand, was a character that never quite worked for me. Part of it, I think, is that I was hungry for more details about their relationship, why they were initially attracted to one another and why it failed. He spends a significant portion of the novel as little more than a reference or an idea and as a result I never really felt I knew him and what makes him tick.

As for Griselda, I found her to be easy to empathize with and I appreciated that while she occasionally accepts help from male characters that she is not portrayed as a damsel in distress. I appreciated the way this story affects her relationship with Con and her desire to keep him from harm. While I think a story beat at the end is not quite earned, I did enjoy spending time in her company.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was that it feels like an absolutely unpredictable, crazy ride. It is not just the surprising plot developments, although there are a few moments I never saw coming, but rather it is the character beats that make this feel quite different and unusual. It is a joy discovering these characters and seeing how they will all interact with each other to drive the story.

The So Blue Marble is a wonderfully entertaining, even amusing story which feels far too polished and rich to be anyone’s first novel. I had a good time discovering the secrets behind the marble and its history as well as seeing how the conflict between the twins and Griselda would play in it. For those who enjoy thriller-type stories, this would be Highly Recommended.

The Inverted Crime by Leonard Gribble

IMG_20181111_000928Earlier this year I had my first encounter with Leonard Gribble and his series sleuth Anthony Slade when I reviewed The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, a novel which was recently reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. When I finished reading I took a look at what else they had written and this book jumped out at me for an obvious reason (for those new to the blog, I kind of like inverted mysteries). Could Leonard Gribble have actually penned an inverted mystery?

Well, no. The Inverted Crime is a fairly traditional puzzle mystery, albeit one with slightly unusual pacing and structural choices. The title comes from an observation Slade makes when he first sees the crime scene that the evidence appears to be the wrong way around both literally and figuratively although it takes some time for him to explain precisely what he means by that and its implications for solving the case.

Superintendent Anthony Slade is approached by Colonel Vane, a man he worked with in the War Office’s Special Intelligence Branch, with a request for help. His nephew has become attached to a woman who is married to Lancelot Lavesty, a man with a scandalous reputation as a womanizer. Though he is frequently unfaithful, Lavesty is unwilling to consider a divorce and Vane is concerned that the affair will soon become a matter of public scandal.

What prompts Vane approaching Slade however is that his nephew has been invited to a house party with Lavesty. The concern is that the two men’s feud may become increasingly heated and that they may become murderous unless a third party is present to keep the pair in check. Slade agrees to attend the party in a private capacity but it seems his presence has had little effect when Lavesty is found shot dead in a boathouse.

The circumstances of the shooting seem a little odd with some physical details of the scene and the condition of the corpse making little sense. For instance, Lavesty has bruising on his face suggesting he was knocked down yet he was shot implying that the murderer came armed. If that was the case though, why not just shoot Lavesty rather than attacking him first?

Making sense of this sequence of events is key to solving the mystery but there is an obstacle in Slade’s path: the local police refuse to call in Scotland Yard so his presence here is strictly unofficial. Sure, Frampton who leads the investigation calls him in at points but he also cuts him out of aspects of the case and makes it clear that he has no authority. Slade decides to look into things regardless but that means he has to conduct his investigation discretely to avoid tipping him off.

I mentioned early in the review that this novel has a slightly unorthodox structure and set of story beats and I think that this relationship between Frampton and Slade is one of the causes of that. Because he is involved only in an unofficial capacity we get little in the way of formal interviews with the suspects and so much of what we do get comes in the form of observations or reported conversations.

There are other ways too in which this story defies the typical structure of a puzzle mystery such as the speed at which the material facts of the murder are established. Within pages of the novel starting we are given a lot of information about the eventual victim, his lifestyle and relationships with others in the house and neighborhood. We are led to expect fireworks between the two men and yet the details of the party are skipped entirely to bring us to the moment where the body is found. It feels rather abrupt and inelegantly handled though I did appreciate the way it causes us to focus on the evidence at the scene rather than our details of events leading up to the moment that the crime was committed.

Gribble also takes the fairly unusual step of slimming down his cast of suspects pretty quickly after the moment in which the murder is committed. Rather than forcing all of the guests to hang around and play a role, those who have no role to play are permitted to return home and we are left with a small core of characters to pick from.

It is quite striking too that Gribble clearly establishes several characters as being roguish or unscrupulous from the moment that they first appear. I found this to be an interesting, if not wholly effective choice. Because there is little attempt made to provide them with a veneer of charm or gentility, these characters read a little flat. I think Gribble makes up for this later with some of his other characters but for the most part I never really felt we get to know them.

Still, Slade knows who these suspect individuals are and so rather than following a typical path of gathering clues and carrying out interviews he follows them and discretely observes their actions. It almost reads like a (rather gentle) thriller except that the reader will likely realize that there must be more going on here and look behind the case as it appears to figure out just what is happening and why.

Happily the explanation of what has happened is much more interesting than the process of Slade’s investigation and this gives the final few chapters a strong impact as he pieces the case together. I think that the sequence of events, while quite complicated, makes a lot of sense of the crime scene and brings things to a very neat conclusion. It is not only well-reasoned and easily visualized, there are aspects of the ending that struck me as extremely satisfying dramatically. It is certainly far more interesting than the plot as it appears for much of the novel.

Unfortunately as strong as the end point of the journey is, we do have to take account of the path to that point and here I think the book lets itself down. Though some parts of the story are intriguing and dramatic, the middle of the book sags with its repetitive and uninspired investigation scenes while the abrupt opening feels a little awkward.

The result is an interesting but somewhat uneven read. I did appreciate the chance to see some of Gribble’s range as a storyteller however and I will certainly be keeping a lookout for other Slade stories in the future.

The Case of Sir Adam Braid by Molly Thynne

BraidThe 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)