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.

Death in the Dentist’s Chair by Molly Thynne

death-in-the-dentists-chairI 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

CrimeatNoahsArkMy 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.