Death in the Dentist’s Chair by Molly Thynne

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)

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark
Molly Thynne
Originally Published 1931
Dr Constantine #1
Followed by Death in the Dentist’s Chair

My fourth selection for my week of Christmassy crimes is Molly Thynne’s The Crime at the Noah’s Ark which was republished last year by Dean Street Press.

Travelling for the holidays can be a daunting prospect, particularly if the weather takes a turn for the worse.  Novelist Angus Stuart, having finally found success with a bestseller, is keen to avoid the now-loving embrace of his family for the holidays and decides to spend Christmas at a resort for the well-to-do while he works on his next book. When an accumulation of thick snow makes his route impassable, he and several other travellers are forced to stay at a nearby country inn, The Noah’s Ark, until the roads can be cleared.

Almost all of the guests at the inn had not intended to stay there and while most attempt to make the best of the situation, their first evening together does not get off to a good start. One of their number, Major Carew, gets steadily more drunk as the evening goes on and he begins to harass the female guests. Getting fed up of his behavior, the party takes him to his room and locks him inside.

Later that night one of the female guests reports seeing a masked man prowling the corridors though Stuart sees no signs of him when he goes in search of him. A few hours later the chess champion, Dr. Constantine, alerts Stuart to a rope dangling from the Major’s window. They worry that he may have climbed out in an attempt to escape his room but they are surprised to find the key to his room has vanished.

While they are searching for the key, an American guest declares that her emerald girdle has been stolen from her room. Believing the Major may have been behind this crime the group decides to break into the room but when they do so he is found dead, murdered with a blunt instrument. The sleuths will have to figure out how these two crimes might be linked and locate the stolen girdle.

The reason I have gone into far more detail about the way this story is set up than with most mysteries I have described is that a large part of the mystery in this book relates to the question of how the various events of that evening and those that follow are interconnected and why they are happening. As Kate says in her review on CrossExaminingCrime, the logistics of the crimes are complex but the motivations are quite simple.

At this point I should probably say that I do not think that the identities of the criminals or the hiding place for the jewels are really possible to deduce from the information provided. The explanations, when given, do make sense but I would be very surprised if any reader could prove their case against the characters involved. They might however be able to logically deduce that all-important sequence of events and the relationship between the crimes.

Thynne’s story is written in the third person and while we follow Stuart’s activities more closely than the other characters he is not the only sleuth investigating this case. Two other hotel guests are also working on trying to figure things out, forming an informal alliance. One of these is a commercial traveller, Soames, who is the only guest staying at the hotel who had intended to stay there. The other is a renowned chess champion, Dr. Constantine, who tries to approach the case quite methodically and refuses to share his thoughts until he is ready, much to Stuart’s frustration.

Each of these characters has a distinct personality and approach to solving the two crimes and there are points where they disagree strongly about who to suspect and why. In fact there are moments where it is clear that they may even suspect each other. I did enjoy those sometimes fractious exchanges although I think it is clear early on which of the three amateur sleuths is the one whose thoughts we should be paying the most attention to.

I liked the concept of that sleuth here a lot, even if Thynne hides his thought process from us a little more than I’d like and occasionally has him dismiss a suspect when you might think they deserve closer scrutiny. I am excited to know that they appear in two further stories as I can certainly see their promise.

Thynne creates an interesting mix of guests for our sleuths to suspect and I did enjoy how quickly they came to suspect each other and voice their suspicions of each others’ guilt. There is a surprisingly large cast of characters and she does well to make each distinct enough that I never had any difficulty keeping their identities straight in my mind and I appreciated that a few characters were more complex than they initially seemed.

The story unfolds as a steady stream of action and we are constantly reminded that the killer must still be present in the hotel, causing some panic amongst some of the guests. This is an effective source of tension throughout the novel although I was probably more intrigued by the question of how nobody could find the missing girdle in spite of repeated thorough searches and I enjoyed the way Thynne pulled everything together tidily at the end. I do agree with Kate though that the question of how the identity of the killer is proved is a little weak.

The result is a book that I found to be interesting and entertaining. Some readers may feel that the questions of the criminals’ identities is a little disappointing in how they are clued but I think, if viewed as an adventure or if you consider the mystery to be in understanding the connections between events, the story is very engaging and possesses considerable charm.