The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

Originally published in 1930

The delight of Christmas shoppers at the unveiling of a London department store’s famous window display turns to horror when one of the mannequins is discovered to be a dead body…

Mander’s Department Store in London’s West End is so famous for its elaborate window displays that on Monday mornings crowds gather to watch the window blinds being raised on a new weekly display. On this particular Monday, just a few weeks before Christmas, the onlookers quickly realise that one of the figures is in fact a human corpse, placed among the wax mannequins. Then a second body is discovered, and this striking tableau begins a baffling and complex case for Inspector Devenish of Scotland Yard.

The Shop Window Murders opens as a crowd gathers outside a department store’s windows to await the unveiling of a new display featuring fancy dress costumes. When the blinds are raised at nine the crowd are initially appreciative but it doesn’t take long for someone to notice the figure out of place in the scene – a man dressed in mechanic overalls – and that he doesn’t seem to be made of wax like the other figures.

The police are summoned and investigate, finding that the masked mechanic is the store’s owner and that he has been shot. Meanwhile another figure is spotted within the window – a woman who has been stabbed. She has a gun and yet close examination will prove that her weapon was not the one that killed Tobias Mander, only making the scene in the window more puzzling.

I selected to read The Shop Window Murders as part of my Festive Reads series this year but I should probably start by saying that there is absolutely nothing seasonal about this work. While the story is set in Novemeber, there is no mention within the text of the window display being related to the holiday and given that these window displays are changed weekly there is nothing to suggest that this was a particularly significant event in the store’s calendar. I will not hold that against the book itself but feel I ought to clarify that rather misleading blurb.

The best thing about this book is its initial premise which is delightfully puzzling. In just a couple of pages Loder lays out a crime that appears neat and tidy but that actually is far more complex than it seems as the reader realizes that the story the crime scene appears to tell simply does not make sense. There are too many gaps for the easy explanations to make sense.

The chapters that follow introduce us to our handful of suspects, some with clear motives while others’ are less obvious. I appreciated that there are efforts made to have those characters drawn from different spheres within Mander’s life and I respected the role they played within the context of the puzzle. I was less impressed however with the depth of their characterizations.

With the expection of the department store manager, Mr. Kephim, I never really had much sense of the various suspects or their personalities beyond a sense of their occupation. I did not find their voices to be strong or distinctive and, once again with the exception of Mr. Kephim who has an emotional reaction to the discovery of the bodies, I struggled to feel engaged with their stories.

It was not just the characterization of the suspects that disappointed me however but I similarly felt unengaged with Inspector Devenish, the detective Loder creates. In his excellent introduction to the edition reissued a few years ago, crime historian Nigel Moss quite rightly points out some of the similarities and differences between this work and Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery. What strikes me most as I think about book is that I think this sort of story needed a character like Ellery to inject a little more life into the investigation and, in particular, the various questioning sessions he conducts.

Inspector Devenish is, for want of a better description, a bore. He is hardly the first detective I have encountered who feels a little lacking in any strong characteristics but he does differ from the likes of Crofts’ Inspector French in that I never found his process or the way he intellectually approaches solving the crime to be particularly compelling. In short, I simply didn’t enjoy his company and that didn’t help with my overall engagement with this story which I found to be rather dry once we get beyond the first few chapters of the book.

This is unfortunate because the actual explanation of what happened is really interesting and I do acknowledge that the essential points are properly clued (though I think Devenish does guess a few points). Similarly I have to acknowledge that the explanation is quite clever and, as far as I can tell, fairly novel at the time. Perhaps most importantly though, I feel like it is fairly comprehensive and avoids leaving any loose plot ends.

There were clearly some parts of The Shop Window Murders that did hold some appeal for me. I think the core premise and the multiple contradictions within it are cleverly introduced and I think the explanation given feels compelling and sensible. The problem for me was that the path to reach that explanation felt dry and seems to move quite slowly. Others may feel differently though, particularly those who focus most strongly on the puzzle elements of a mystery.

The Verdict: As much as I liked the premise of this mystery, I found the investigation and its sleuth to be rather unengaging. The solution to the puzzle is rather good though.