Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
Originally published in 1931
Dr. Hailey #12
Preceded by The Yellow Crystal
Followed by The White Arrow
Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom―but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body.
Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick―perhaps too quick―to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.
This month (and next month) I have committed to starting each week with a post about a locked room or impossible crime novel. One of the reasons I have been keen to do this is to provide a little structure for my week’s blogging, limiting the time I spend browsing through my collection and library bookshelves in search of something to read, but it also was aimed at encouraging me to make more of an effort to work through my TBR pile.
The subject of this week’s post, Anthony Wynne’s Murder of a Lady, was particularly deserving of such attention. I cannot be certain but I am pretty sure that this was one of the very first British Library Crime Classics novels I purchased along with Death in the Tunnel but while the Burton quickly got read, this one somehow fell through the gaps and escaped my attention. Even when the time came for me to find a Wynne novel to blog about I overlooked the one I already owned in favor of a copy of The Green Knife. For the curious, I thought that one had a very clever impossible crime but was a bit tedious to read. Happily Murder of a Lady is a much more readable novel, though it is not without its own set of flaws.
Amateur detective Dr. Hailey is staying with a friend in the Scottish Highlands when he receives a visit from Mr. Leod McLeod, the Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll, who is seeking his help with a strange case. He is told that there has been a murder at Duchlan Castle and that the victim, an elderly spinster who ‘hadn’t an enemy in the world’, was brutally murdered in her bed. The problem is that the room was locked and the windows barred making it far from clear how a murderer could have gained entry. With the Police presumed to be unable to attend the scene for some time, McLeod wants to have Hailey start work while the crime scene is still fresh.
The initial investigation turns up some intriguing points, not least the strange matter of a deep scar on the victim’s body from years earlier. Before Dr. Hailey can get too far however the professional detective makes his appearance and asserts his control on the scene and the investigation, temporarily relegating Hailey to the role of bystander. Further murders however see Hailey called into action once again…
One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was its setting in the Scottish highlands. I would suggest that the strength of this book is not its geography or its description of a physical location – Duchlan Castle does not feel anywhere near as haunting as the one Innes creates in Lament for a Maker – but in its depiction of the people, the customs, traditions and beliefs. While Duchlan Castle does not necessarily make a huge impression on me as a physical space, its inhabitants struck me as very credible as did their somewhat strained relationships.
The first victim, Mary Gregor, was the sister of the laird and when she is first described she seems to have been pious and lived a rather faultless existence, financially supporting both her brother and his son’s family. Of course we soon realize that things were not quite so idyllic as they may have appeared and that there were other sides to her strong religious character that may have been a source of resentments within the household. While she is already dead at the start of the book, she feels really quite alive and dimensional.
I found the other members of the household to be equally colorful and interesting, with the exception of a few of the servants who fade a little into the background. Even these characters though are helpful in fleshing out the staff of the house and making it feel like a credible old home. Of these the two standout characters would be the laird himself and the family’s doctor who among his many attributes can boast a wooden leg. Compared with The Green Knife, the characterization here feels a lot richer and more intriguing.
Wynne offers up a series of murders, starting with the impossible murder of Mary Gregor. He is careful to set out the rules of this space, making it quite clear that the room was really locked by giving us the testimony of an independent witness. The question of how the crime was managed seems genuinely puzzling and I think Wynne does a pretty good job of stretching out the investigation, doing a particularly fine job of exploring the complicated web of relationships between the various suspects.
While the murder of Mary Gregor is the most striking of the murders committed in this novel, I should say that I find it the least satisfying on a mechanical level. I certainly think the basic concept is a clever one but I struggled to imagine how it would work physically in a way I never did with the solution to The Green Knife. This is unfortunate as I think a few of the elements are quite clever and I think the explanation for what follows and why is interesting and well explained. Perhaps most impressive is the way Wynne is able to keep adding to the death count without seeming to point the finger too much at one character – I was certainly kept guessing right up to the end of the novel.
Wynne creates two professional detectives that Dr. Hailey will have to interact with in the course of the case. This does present some interesting wrinkles as we get some clashes between Hailey as the pros in which there is discussion of their investigative philosophies but it does also slow the novel down, particularly when the second investigator is introduced. While I recognized the reality that a professional investigation will need someone in charge at all times, a consequence of having two such characters is that they eat up some narrative space that could have been given to the suspects and the novel comes to feel as much about the details of the investigation as it is the events that precipitated it. That being said, I do enjoy a number of moments of the pro vs amateur rivalries within the book and I feel it does make this a little different than many such detective stories.
One unfortunate aspect of this choice is that Hailey spends a surprisingly large amount of the novel simply observing or being told about events. This is understandable given his personality – he is not likely to want to play second fiddle to another investigator and ignore his own thoughts and instincts – but it does mean that he does not seem particularly active or involved in steering how things turn out. That being said, I do appreciate his role in the context of the story and once he does get more heavily involved things do begin to move quite quickly.
Unfortunately I think that the structural issue here is hard to ignore. Hailey spends far too long as a bystander on the edge of the case and so comes off as one of the blandest figures in the book. I felt pretty similarly about him in The Green Knife so I suspect that this is just part of his character but I consider it an unfortunate and undesirable one. As interesting as his discussions with Dundas about their respective methods are, I wanted him to take hold of this investigation – not simply wait to be given it.
As such it is hard to strongly recommend the novel. The murder method is interesting even though I struggle to accept it could have worked as initially described (unless I am just not picturing an element of the scene correctly). I just wish it moved a little faster or that Dr. Hailey was a stronger protagonist. For now all I can say is that this is a better read than The Green Knife and that while I have goodwill toward Wynne, I have yet to be blown away. If anyone has a Wynne recommendation they want to give though I am very willing to receive it…
The Verdict: I enjoyed the Highland setting and the impossibilities. Unfortunately Dr. Hailey is a little anonymous as a sleuth, making the novel feel a little awkwardly paced.
JJ @ The Invisible Event described this rather wonderfully as ‘a classically-styled piece of rococo detection’. I do agree with him that the false solutions are a nice feature of this book.
Tomcat @ Beneath the Stains of Time commends the solutions to the crimes, calling them ‘simple, but convincing’. I do agree that this is particularly true of the second and third murders. He points out that Wynne doesn’t really do enough with the legend of the swimmers – a fair point that I totally forgot to pass comment on above. So yes, I agree that this thread had a great potential to be quite creepy and unsettling but doesn’t quite have that level of impact here.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praised the choice of murderer (once again, I agree).