When ‘amateur sleuthing… in self-defense’ goes horribly wrong…
In a similar way to Annie Haynes, Dorothy Bowers’ writing career has also suffered neglect due to her early death of tuberculous in 1948 (the year she also joined the Detection Club). Bowers had a short career with her first detective novel being published in 1938, Postscript to Poison (a book I’ve read), followed by Shadows Before (1939), Deed Without a Name (1940) (which I’m reviewing today), Fear and Miss Betony (1941) and The Bells of Old Bailey (1947). Her serial sleuth was Inspector Dan Pardoe and ‘many contemporary critics… said she was the logical successor to Dorothy L Sayers,’ (Tom and Enid Schantz, 2005) a writer she admired along with S. S. Van Dine, A. E. W. Mason and J. J. Connington. Based on the two novels of hers I have read I think this epitaph is not quite accurate, although her penchant for including literary quotations is similar, as in Deed Without a Name, the title of which comes from Macbeth, each chapter is subtitled with a quote from Shakespeare.
It’s 1939, war has recently been declared and on the very same day as telling two of his old school and college friends, Tony Wynkerrell (partner of a bookshop) and Philip Beltane (a schoolmaster), about a series of attempts to kill him, Archy Mitfold, an artist with a maimed hand and who is preparing for a job in the Foreign Office is murdered in the home of his Aunt. How the murder is committed is a straight forward affair, but the who and why are the puzzling elements of the case for Inspector Pardoe. Digging into Mitfold’s movements in the past few months makes the case even more mysterious. According to the maid he has been going out late at night saying cryptic remarks that indicate he was on to something, which is made more tantalising by the fact his diary is missing. He becomes exultant after a trip to the cinema and he is forever drawing or making clay models of a bird (pictures included), sometimes with a hammer symbol. He witnesses a bicycle accident, takes another man’s coat by accident at a Nordic Bond meeting he occasionally went to and accidently goes into an empty house due to the blackout, instead of his German Professor’s house. Surrounding all of these incidents is the fact that a millionaire called Samson Vick has also been missing for 3 weeks and in the run up to his murder Mitfold became suddenly interested in the case. Yet which of these are red herrings and which are the genuine clues to solving the case? Pardoe may have decided who his least and most likely suspects are, but will he unravel the mystery before the killer strikes again to preserve their anonymity?
Golden Age detective novelists often draw on unusual sources of information to inform their fictional crimes. Those on poison or other methods of murder would hardly be surprising and for the seasoned reader literary sources such as Shakespeare would also not be unheard of. Yet I think this is the first detective novel I’ve read where bird watchers or ornithologists to give them their technical term would have a decided advantage. Having said that since Bowers plays very fair with the reader, the killer’s identity should be guessable before Pardoe reaches it, even if you don’t have all the information and/or couldn’t tell the difference between a robin and a penguin. The puzzle is good with plenty of avenues for exploration and the clues as I have suggested are a little bit different. Moreover, the dialogue parts of the story are engaging and can be amusing at times. However, overall, as a novel, I felt it could have been shortened in order to create more tension and to prevent the parts where there is no dialogue from dragging at times, in particular I felt the novel did start rather slow. Due to these weaknesses in the narration I feel she is not as good as Sayers was and furthermore, I don’t think I was as interested in or as engaged with Inspector Pardoe as I have been when reading Lord Peter Wimsey’s exploits. Although in Bowers’ defense it seems that her fourth novel Fear and Miss Betony received the most praise at the time and therefore might be one of her stronger works.
See what others made of Bowers’ Deed Without a Name:
Schantz, T. & E. (2003). Dorothy Bowers. Available: http://www.ruemorguepress.com/authors/bowers.html. Last accessed 27/09/2015.