Written in 1907, The Mayfair Mystery is arguably quite ahead of its time in several respects in its exploration of certain themes. It opens with the seemingly dead body of Sir Clifford, a Harley Street genius. We are quickly introduced to the other key characters in of the novel: Reggie Pardell, a gentleman on hard times who is Sir Clifford’s valet, George Harding, a KC and good friend of Sir Clifford and Miss Clive a mysterious and beautiful woman, with no past. Mysterious events quickly unfold in the first third of the novel with the disappearance of Harding’s clerk’s daughter and the unaccountable behaviour and disappearances of both Sir Clifford (who isn’t actually dead) and Miss Clive, who lives in a house owned by Sir Clifford.
The writing style of the novel is concise and precise and the short length of the chapters, gives it an episodic nature. Some parts of the story are humorously written such as when one of the characters relates an incident about his stolen tiepin and the absurd detective investigations which ensued, with a multitude of different types of detectives laying siege to his house to try and solve the case. I felt this might have been a satirical comment about the wide range of fictional detectives which sprung up after the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes:
‘The meeting of detectives was more complete than yesterday’s. It seemed to me a full house. In all human probability my collection was complete; I had examples of every known brand. There were detectives who looked like archdeacons, detectives who ate like British workmen defying German competition, detectives who drank like lords, policemen disguised as detectives, detectives disguised as policemen.’
Moreover, one of the characters is a novelist called Fredrick Robinson and he is known for his frequent lampooning of gentlemen’s whiskers. However, as stated in the introduction to my edition, Frank Richardson was a comic writer, who satirised whiskers so much in his work that Punch nicknamed him ‘Mr Frank Whiskerson’. It is therefore not too much of a leap to suggest that Frederick Robinson (same initials as well) is a spoof or fictional version of the writer.
Furthermore, something else that I found interesting was Richardson’s inclusion of a passage concerning the public’s reaction to the missing woman such as buying themed postcards, newspaper competitions for likely solutions and even letters of proposal. Although intended for humour, it strongly reminded me of the commercial aspect of crime. Judith Flander’s talks about this in her book The Invention of Murder (2011) where during the 19th century it wasn’t uncommon for objects related to a murderer or victim to be sold or copied as souvenirs to the public. In particular I remember that after the red barn murder in 1827 where William Corder murdered Maria Marten, porcelain reproductions of the barn were sold.
My main problem with novel is that the solution to the various interlinked mysteries is so obvious from a ¼ of the way through, due to characters revealing too much information which although they can’t deduce from, most readers can. I think this problem has also occurred because the mysteries themselves are so unique and outré that the range of solutions is fairly limited. This meant that the rest of the book was a little boring as I already knew the answer. However, Richardson does resolve the various plot strands in an interesting way, which presents a very forward thinking presentation of gender and sexuality. These are presented in a much more fluid way which would fit quite closely with modern opinions on such matters. Due to this being a mystery novel rather than a novel of manners such themes are not as fully pursued but there is enough there to provoke thought and discussion and I think this is a text ripe for reading and analysing by feminists and practitioners of queer theory.
Rating: 3/5 (Mainly because I solved the mystery too early on)
This is the dust jacket of the Harper Collins reprint of this novel, due to come out in August. Personally, I don’t really like it, as to me it looks a little like an octopus is attacking the woman.