Reprint of the Year 2022: Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Last week I shared some thoughts about one of the most recent reprints of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, The End of Andrew Harrison. In that post I noted that I really appreciate the idea that the entirety of his output will at some point be available again and that each new set of titles moves us closer to that. It is worth pointing out though that I doubt I would have encountered Crofts at all had it not been for a crime fiction imprint that takes a different, ‘curated’ approach to its releases.

Ranges like the British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics are wonderful tools for discovery. Readers may well pick up a copy of The Mad Hatter Mystery or It Walks By Night based on already knowing and loving the author but by giving the impression of careful selection and the implication that the title is one of the highlights of that author’s work, it also provides an easy jumping on point. It is, in essence, a literary tasting menu.

Earlier this year I treated myself to a subscription to Penzler Publishing’s American Mystery Classics range through The Mysterious Bookshop. I would get a copy of whatever titles they put out with the knowledge that I’d be getting some authors I’d already know of and others that would be completely new to me. Roger Scarlett, the author of this novel, fell neatly into that second category.

I might not have picked up this book had it just been one of a half dozen titles by the author on a shelf. Indeed I would likely never have looked closely at it at all (one of the few knocks I’d make on this publication is that the image of the cat on the cover gives the book a much cozier appearance than its reality). As part of an ongoing range which has had far more hits than misses for me however I find myself more willing to give a book the benefit of the doubt and at least give it a chance to impress me.

Which Cat’s Paw did.

The story concerns the murder of a septuagenarian who is visited at his Boston mansion by members of his extended family, all hoping that they will be remembered in his will. When he shares some information at his birthday party however they are appalled and before the night is out he has been murdered.

Scarlett gives us family tensions, unspoken secrets and a cast of characters all seemingly having been pushed to desperation. It’s a very solid base for a mystery. What I appreciated here though is that while there are some familiar elements here, it feels like Scarlett is trying to give the suspects a range of backstories. Learning what those are is as exciting as discovering the solution to the mystery overall.

With much of the novel devoted to getting to know the victim and the suspects, I think that they feel particularly dimensional and well developed. It is this focus on character that makes this book such a pleasure to read and helped me really invest in discovering the truth. That solution, when it comes, is well constructed and clued, helping the book deliver a nice, punchy conclusion with an excellent final page reveal.

It was a great read and I am grateful to the American Mystery Classics range for selecting this and helping me to encounter it. I came away from the book excited to read more Roger Scarlett in the future. Now I just have to wait for someone to go ahead and reprint them…

Reprint of the Year 2022: The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

As we approach the end of this year it is a pleasure to once again be asked to put forward a few nominations for what I consider to be my reprints of the year. Happily the first of my picks was particularly easy this year as among the titles this year was a book that I reviewed several years ago and have been eager to see others be able to get their hands on: Freeman Wills Crofts’ The End of Andrew Harrison.

There’s a lot I really love about this story but I think my interest in it started with learning it was one of just a couple of attempts from Crofts at writing an impossible crime. What particularly interests me about Crofts’ approach is that rather than trying to sustain an impossibility across an entire novel it is instead set up and broken down all in the course of about forty pages.

The problem here is a sealed and bolted cabin on board a boat. The only other entrance to the cabin is a porthole, helpfully pictured on the front of this reprint edition. When the body of Andrew Harrison, a prominent and wealthy man who had only just reappeared after inexplicably vanishing for a few days, is discovered inside that cabin it appears completely impossible that anyone could have gained entry.

Crofts’ series detective, Inspector French, is tasked with working out exactly what had happened and he does so in his typical, methodical fashion. It is this, rather than the situation itself, that makes this part of the book so compelling. Rather than dealing with an impossibility on a more conceptual level, French will break it apart through attention to detail and repeated, rigorous testing of his ideas.

It proves fascinating to read and is, for me, one of the highest points of Crofts’ writing. Those forty pages tell you everything you need to know about the character, the way he thinks and approaches solving a crime. I couldn’t work this one out myself, making the moment where he pieces it together all the more satisfying.

As excellent as that chapter is, it is just one piece – albeit a highlight – of a wider case. The question of whodunit is every bit as important as that of how the matter was done. It is a pleasure following French’s investigation as he pieces together the story of Harrison’s sudden disappearance and the timeline of the murder itself. The pacing of the case is superb with Crofts regularly introducing new discoveries that keep the reader from getting too far ahead of the meticulous detective. It is, in short, one of the most tightly plotted of all of the Crofts stories I have read.

I nominate The End of Andrew Harrison in part because of its quality as a book but also because I want to emphasize how much I have appreciated this run of reprints. While some Crofts titles have been easy to come across as cheap vintage reprints, others proved much trickier. This was one of those, in part perhaps because of that status as one of his few impossible crimes. From memory I paid somewhere around the $50 price for a battered copy of this and when I read it, I was frustrated that the higher price tag and lack of easy availability would keep others from picking it up themselves.

I am delighted therefore to see this return to print and finally be available for others to read and enjoy. I hope that even if you don’t vote for this (which, to be clear, you should), that you give this one a try. If you do, let me know what you make of it. I’m eager to read what others think of it!