Source: Review Copy
‘…and yet the detective had the strongest instinct or presentiment… that the clue which would eventually lead him through the labyrinth was to be found amongst them.’
Ever since hearing about this nearly forgotten Golden Age detective writer on The Passing Tramp blog I have been keen to get a hold of the reprints which are being published by the Dean Street Press (release date 5th October). In this particular edition, Curtis Evans provides interesting information about Haynes’ life, which seems to have taken a lot of research, as not a lot has been known about her, until recently. Interestingly her career in writing detective novels began near the end of her life and was cut short by heart failure in 1929 (which was aggravated by her rheumatoid arthritis). But during the 1920s she was commented on favourably by reviewers and placed in the same category as Agatha Christie, with her ability to plot and to also write a good novel. Perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of the introduction was when Evans asserts that Hayne’s novels combine the styles of the Victorian sensation novel (albeit less emotional) and the ‘fleetness of Jazz age detective fiction’. The idea of combining these styles fascinated me and during the reading of this story I found it an interesting experience perusing a book whose styles arguably juxtapose in many respects which I will explore later in my review. In addition I felt that the straddling of Victorian and 1920s popular fiction was almost mirroring the author herself who was born in the 1860s and is mirrored in the character of Lavinia (more info later) who combined both Victorian and 1920s social and moral ideas.
The Man with the Dark Beard (1928) opens with Dr. John Bastow sharing a growing concern he has with his long-time friend Sir Felix Skrine, KC, in regards to what course of action he should take:
‘Suppose that in the course of a man’s professional career he found that a crime had been committed, had never been discovered, never even suspected, what would you say such a man ought to do?’
Felix is definite in his orthodox opinion that John should tell the police but something seems to be holding John back from doing so. He decides to think about it and continue discussing it with Felix later. This was never to be though, because soon afterwards John is found shot in his study locked from the inside by the other members of his house/medical practice:
- Hilary, his daughter who has recently fallen in love with and planned to marry
- Basil Wilton, who was John’s assistant and is jealous the attention Sir Skrine gives his god daughter Hilary;
- Miss Lavinia Priestly, aunt of Hilary and her brother, who is an enjoyable character described as ‘a spinster of eccentric habits.’ In a way she reminds me of Mrs Bradley in appearance: ‘Her costumes, as a rule, combine what she thought sensible and becoming in the fashions of the past with those of the present day. The result was bizarre’. Her distrust of others is also palpable, making her similar to more sleuth minded spinsters like Miss Marple: ‘Short skirts and backless frocks haven’t altered human nature.’
- Mary Ann Taylor, parlour maid to the Bastows.
Hilary also has a brother called Felix but who has been a cripple since birth and is therefore not present at the finding of his father’s body. His role in the story is firmly in the sensation-fiction element of the plot, providing emotional pressure to an increasingly downtrodden and depressed Hilary. Doctor Bastow also had a secretary, a Miss Houlton, was also not present at this time.
It is Detective Inspector William Stoddart who is called in to investigate the crime, a detective who is distinguished from other sleuths at the time such as Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot by his ‘undistinguished exterior’. At the scene is a half-finished letter to Sir Skrine, a missing Chinese box (which contained proofs of the crime John had discovered) and a scrap of paper purportedly in John’s handwriting saying:
‘It was the man with the dark beard.’
What initially makes this a tricky case for both the detective and reader to solve is the plethora of suspicious behaviour demonstrated by the other characters. Firstly the parlour maid, who seems to have a murky past absconds, then Miss Houlton, overnight has come into sufficient money to refrain from looking for another post and Doctor Morris, a close friend and colleague of John Bastow, known for his beard, attends the inquest clean shaven.
The more sensation-novel element of the novel now begins to take precedence. As executor of John Bastow’s will, Sir Skrine prohibits Hilary from marrying Wilton and moves both her and her brother to a cottage just outside his country estate and it soon becomes apparent that Skrine’s motivations for doing so do not originate from his role as god father and are more romantic in nature. For a substantial part of the story, the case of Bastow’s murder is suspended and Stoddart vacates the stage with the focus being on Skrine and Lavinia’s attempts to persuade Hilary to reject Wilton and on Wilton’s own increasingly suspicious interactions with Miss Houlton.
The more conventional detective novel resumes in a dramatic way, some months after the previous murder, which leaves Wilton whose health has seemingly diminished, in a difficult position with the police, not only in regards to the death of John Bastow but also for another murder, that of Mrs Wilton’s…..
Inspector Stoddart and his subordinate, Alfred Harbord apply their energies to both cases with gusto and with contradictory evidence only a climatic ending will confirm whether Wilton is innocent or not and who Hilary will be walking down the aisle with…
I would definitely say that the contemporary reviewers are justified in saying that Haynes can write a novel which is more than a puzzle, building up relationships effectively and including sly humorous comments on the changing times of the 1920s:
‘I love Basil, dad. And I hope we shall be married someday.’
‘Oh you do, do you’ remarked her father, raising his pince-nez and surveying her sarcastically, ‘I suppose it isn’t the thing nowadays to ask your father’s consent – went out when cropped heads and skirts to the knees came in, didn’t it?’
‘The twentieth-century girl does not faint – she merely turned a few degrees whiter…’
In addition, I think the creation of Lavinia contributed significantly to the overall story, diluting the more sensation-novel/melodrama actions of Hilary. Moreover, I think I enjoyed her character not because she was just simply a forward thinking woman or because she was good or nice; in fact there are parts in the novel where her judgement and actions are seriously questionable. Furthermore, on the one hand she is very independent, prepared to visit a friend in Algiers by herself, yet on the other hand, she is deeply traditional in regards to her niece who she feels must marry in order to avoid being single and poor, regardless of whether she loves the man or not. It was this contradictory nature which I found engaging, as it made what she was going to say or do less predictable and she certainly exits the novel on a bombshell, which even leaves Hilary gaping.
So sensation fiction vs. detective fiction. There are significant differences, despite the fact they include crime and the punishment of. Firstly, as elucidated by Judith Flanders in her really good book The Invention of Murder (2011), ‘sensation-fiction implied a world in which every respectable person had a potentially unrespectable secret life, while crime fiction reassured the reader that only one person did, and that she or he would be separated from the respectable at the end. [Secondly] Sensation-fiction was about mystery: crime writing was about certainty’ (Flanders, 2011: 295). The Man with the Dark Beard does manage to straddle both subgenres successfully here as early on in the novel suspicion is thrown over many of the characters by their curious behaviour, which entails in a lot of mystery. However, ultimately this mystery is banished and the assurance of detective fiction that the guilty person has been caught takes its’ place, although the removal of said person perhaps makes a return back to the sensational. It is this third difference which is perhaps more problematic in the novel: ‘the sensation novel was about buried secrets, and their revelation; the detective novel about the person doing the revealing’ (Flanders, 2011: 375). I think overall the sensation element of the novel was perhaps more dominant as the large middle section is devoted to it, meaning that the reader is quite easily able to figure out with a high degree of likelihood who the guilty party is and why. The detective work which comprises the third and final section of the novel is well written, including some interesting comments on ballistics, but it does feel a bit like this part of the novel is only there to confirm what the reader already knows and it is more a case of whether the guilty person can be proved to be so or whether they will escape justice.
Rating: 3.5 (Haynes writing style and character development is strong and I am keen to sample more of her writing endeavours (watch this space for further reviews). However, what weakened this novel for me a little was the dominance the sensation fiction element had over the plot, meaning that the solution was perhaps revealed a bit too soon. A more dominant detective fiction component would have concealed this more effectively. But it was absorbing and thought-provoking to see a novel combine both writing styles and it will be interesting to see how the balance between sensation fiction and detective fiction is treated in her other novels.)
Flanders, J. (2011). The Invention of Murder. London: Harper Press.