Source: Review Copy
This is the second Haynes’ novel I am reviewing from the Dean Street Press reprints due to come out next month. My main issue with the last one I reviewed; The Man with the Dark Beard (1928), was the predominance of the sensation fiction components in contrast to the detective fiction story. However, I feel in this novel Haynes has found the right balance with the detective fiction plot being given sufficient space to function properly. The Spectator when it reviewed this said ‘we not only encounter thrilling surprises [which is certainly true of the ending], but are introduced to many admirably life-like characters.’
The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929) is set in the horse racing milieu, as indicated by the location in the title (Tattenham Corner is a village with a railway station which people used, to attend the Derby Stakes) and Curtis Evans’ great introduction reveals that Haynes enjoyed having the odd flutter herself. Our series detective, Inspector Stoddart and his assistant Alfred Harbord are called to identify the body of man found in a ditch near this village, having being found shot in the head. As can be expected, the victim is no ordinary man and is Sir John Burslem, who is big in the financial world and owns a horse called Peep O’Day, which has been entered into Derby. It’s unfortunate then he was killed the day before the race. This in itself presents an obvious motive for his death, putting Charles Stanyard in an awkward position. Not only was he a rival, his own horse, Perlyon was also entered into the Derby, but he was also engaged to John’s much younger wife, Sophie before she switched affections. And Sophie is raising quite a number of suspicions in the readers’ minds all by herself. It seems she knows a lot more about the murder than she is letting on:
‘She would have to act today if she had never acted in her life before.’
Moreover, combined with an atmosphere not out of place in a Victorian sensation novel, there is further damning evidence, which reminded me of the real life murderess Constance Kent:
‘Long ago someone used to tell her that she had laughing eyes. Would anyone ever say that again? She asked herself. Just now they seemed to move of their own volition. Glancing here and there into every corner fearfully. Suddenly they were caught by a tumbled heap of white by the sofa near the window. It was the frock she had worn last night just as she had thrown it down. She stared at it in a species of fascinated horror. Surely she was not mistaken. Across one fold there was an ugly dark stain.’
Sophie, as a character fits the role of the sensation fiction heroine with unknown and potentially catastrophically damaging secrets. Furthermore, she tantalising straddles two separate categories of sensation fiction heroine. The first is that of ‘a beautiful, clever young woman who… is adept at disguise and deception – such women are doubly dangerous and generate social instability because they possess and threaten to use secret knowledge’ (Allingham, 2013). Whilst the second is of ‘persecuted innocence (usually young and female)’ (Edwards, 1988: 703). Throughout the book the evidence moves her back and forth between these groups, which is integrated successfully into the detective plot of the novel via Stoddart’s investigations and even at the novel’s conclusion it is hard to decide which group she should finally remain in. Further evidence comes to light such as a hastily written new will leaving Sophie in charge of all of James’ money and in a way reminiscent of the maid in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Sophie’s own maid attempts to capitalise on information she has discovered.
Other characters in the story include:
- Mrs Aubrey Dolphin (prize for the best surname right there);
- James Burslem, John’s brother, who is an explorer last heard of in Tibet,;
- Mrs James Burslem (known as Mrs Jimmy), who unfortunately seems to wear inappropriate clothing for her age and body size and
- Pamela, John’s daughter, who is not impressed at having being taken out of the will, yet an opportunity for romance with a mysterious man called Richard Leyton provides suitable distraction.
Newly found evidence at the scene; a hand bag here, a cigarette case there and a revolver which wasn’t used in the killing makes this an even more puzzling investigation for Inspector Stoddart. Further dramatic events follow such as a vanishing butler (something which I’m surprised hasn’t happened on Downtown Abbey yet) and midnight wanderings from Sophie, (written with a suitably gothic overtone) who in the months after the murder has become engaged, lead to a sensational ending. But has Inspector Stoddart found the right killer?
There is an enjoyable working relationship between Inspector Stoddart and his assistant, who finds important evidence and is also given space to air his own theories. Though like in Sherlock Holmes with Doctor Watson, it is Inspector Stoddart who gets to be right and he holds his cards up his sleeve until the very end and only then discussing the evidence with Alfred so he can analyse the data the way he did. The only bit which was slightly irksome (though is a reflection of the times) was Inspector Stoddart’s belief that:
‘A woman never can throw straight.’
As a detective, Inspector Stoddart combines both routine police work and intuition:
‘I really think it must have been intuition. Then a succession of the veriest trifles seemed to confirm my theory.’
Although both Stoddart and his deputy are not above using their romantic charms to obtain information for the case, even going as far as suggesting marriage to a suspect.
I think my only major criticisms of the novel would firstly be that there, like the previous Haynes’ novel I reviewed, there is no strong likeable female character. Harking back to its sensation roots, the young women in these novels tend to be to varying extents weak damsels (although Sophie does challenge this slightly) and Pamela takes the prize for being the worst offender in this novel (making me wonder what Leyton could see in her). My only other axe to grind would be the choice of killer, which accentuated the sickly sweet ending on the very last page and promoting a stereotypical attitude of a “good” woman.
The puzzle element of this novel is much stronger and more complex compared to The Man with the Dark Beard and the sensation elements of the plot, including ‘exposure of hypocrisy in polite society… [potential] bigamy,’ (Allingham, 2013) ‘ruined heiresses, impossible wills, damning letters, skeletons in the cupboards, [and] misappropriated legacies’ are much more successfully integrated into the detective plot. Consequently I could make some deductions about the case but I was still surprised by the twist at the end.
Allingham, P. (2013). The Victorian Sensation Novel, 1860-1880 — “Preaching To The Nerves Instead Of The Judgment”. Available: http://www.victorianweb.org/genre/sensation.html. Last accessed 26/09/2015.
Edwards, P. D. “Sensation Novels.” Victorian Britain: An Encyclopaedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. London and New York: Garland, 1988. Pp. 703-704.
Terry, R. (1984). Victorian Popular Fiction 1860-80. Humanities Pr.