Originally published in 1961
Dr. Manson # 14
Preceded by Death on my Conscience
Followed by Death Takes the Wheel
Why did Sir John Appleby disinherit his wife and son and leave his estates and large fortune “to my daughter”? The girl has been dead for four years. What was the secret of eight mysterious years missing from his life? Had his wife, or his son, brought about his death to get his money? These were the problems confronting Doctor Manson, Scotland Yard’s scientist head, before he solved an intricate plot of murder, revenge and greed.
When I track down an out-of-print Golden Age mystery it is generally because I have read something about it from a fellow blogger or perhaps read a synopsis that had some element that appealed. Today’s selection however came about because I could find out absolutely nothing about it during some cursory internet searches. No blurb or reviews on Goodreads, nor a particularly clear image of the cover. When I realized I could get hold of a copy I decided that it would be the least I could do to finally provide some of that information as well as offer my own opinions of it.
Death’s Inheritance is going to be a difficult book to describe in detail, not because the setup is particularly complex but because the exact nature of the crimes involved are revealed quite late in the novel. I will confirm that there is murder involved – the blurb quoted above indicates that – but I do not plan on revealing who dies or the circumstances of that death. Hopefully you can forgive a little vagueness and a more generalized discussion of the plot.
The book begins with the wife and son of Sir Waldo Appleby meeting with the family’s lawyer to learn the details of his will. After getting a couple of bequests to servants out of the way, the lawyer comes to discuss the matter of the bulk of the estate – the fortune and considerable landholdings. The expectation was that the son, John, would inherit so they are shocked when they hear that everything is left “to my daughter” – particularly given that Veronica had died several years earlier. It seems certain that a lengthy legal process is about to commence when the lawyer receives a surprising letter that would appear to change matters considerably.
The first half of the novel is given up to detailed discussions of the will and the legal processes that will be at play. This detail is necessary background but it can be a little dry at times. There is an attempt to cultivate some sense of mystery as to what exactly the letter that is received means but I did not find the revelations to be particularly surprising. That is not so much a result of the nature of those reveals as it is that the authors signpost them a little too clearly and offer little in the way of alternate possibilities. I suspect that most readers will find themselves ahead of the story at this point and waiting for the authors to catch up with them.
While the mystery elements in these chapters are a little underwhelming and some of the legal discussions can feel a little slow and circular, the early part of the novel does offer some points of interest. The authors do a good job of capturing life in a rural community at a point where landowning structures were shifting and presents the local farmers and laborers quite sympathetically. It was nice to see their thoughts and opinions represented and that they are allowed to change and grow over the course of the novel.
Around the novel’s halfway point an event occurs that sends the story in a somewhat different direction. While what follows retains much of the legal focus from the first half of the novel (which was why that detail was necessary), the book benefits from providing the reader with some questions to focus on and a proper puzzle emerges. We even get some short interviews and a little research and investigation. It’s really quite welcome and I have little hesitation in saying that the second half feels significantly stronger than the first.
While Dr. Manson does make a brief appearance in the first half of the novel, he becomes significantly more involved in the story from this point onward. He interviews witnesses and suspects, performs some scientific experiments and even does a little undercover work for which he employs a frankly terrible pseudonym of the sort you might expect from the Anthony Ainley Master on Doctor Who. Perhaps more importantly, he does a really good job of explaining exactly what the problems are that he will need to resolve.
Readers should anticipate the style of this story to be more akin to a procedural than a typical puzzle plot. There certainly are some logical inferences that the detective and reader can make from the evidence but I am not convinced that the reader can really solve this for themselves. Some of the information needed is simply too technical or introduced quite late in the story for the case to feel like one the reader can solve for themselves in every detail.
I personally found the solution to be a little far-fetched conceptually, even though I think it is based upon some clever principles. I couldn’t help but feel that the killer’s plan might easily have gone awry and the reveal of their identity was a little underwhelming. That feeling is perhaps amplified a little by the speed at which the conclusion plays out as I did feel that the end was a little rushed.
It is not surprising that Death’s Inheritance is not currently in print – it is not on the level of either Who Killed Dick Whittington? or The Heel of Achilles, both of which I’d happily recommend to those curious to try the authors’ work. The case is a little too technical in nature and, as a consequence, it can feel a little dry in points. Still, it is quite readable and has a few really nice moments such as those in which Lady Appleby comes to some realizations about her position that are written quite effectively.
The Verdict: The problem here takes a little too long to come into focus. This is a shame because there are some interesting ideas here.