Source: Review Copy
‘Guesses and surmises will not help us, and it strikes me there is a jolly lot of spade work in front of us before the mystery of Charmian Karslake’s death is elucidated.’
Out of the three Haynes’ novels I have read I think this is her novel which contains the least, if any, sensation fiction elements and seems like a radically different novel say in comparison to The Man With The Dark Beard (1928), where the killer is guessable a third of the way in. The only trace of sensation fiction elements can be found in the plethora of secrets being hidden by the characters (particularly romantic ones) and the depiction of the female characters. This novel fits into the familiar niche of Golden Age detective fiction known as the country house murder mystery and it is morning after a ball at Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton’s home, Hepton Abbey, that the body of the famous actress Charmian Karslake, renowned for wearing a blue sapphire ball around her neck, is found murdered in her bed, shot at close range, with her necklace gone.
Despite the necklace having disappeared, theft seems an unlikely motive when other more valuable jewellery is left untouched and Inspector Stoddart and his assistant Hardord quickly focus their attention on the remaining house guests which include:
- Dicky Moreton, Sir Arthur’s younger half-brother who is married to;
- Sadie Juggs, a rich American heiress;
- Mr Larpent, a successful defence lawyer who is engaged to;
- Miss Galbraith, who knows more than she is willing to say and embodies to an extent the heroine of sensation fiction who has secrets to conceal: ‘proudly poised head and her firmly compressed lips did not hide from him the shadow of the fear that lurked in her blue eyes.’
The heart of this mystery revolves around finding out who Karslake really was, as many of the characters throughout the novel have evidence that suggests that far from being American, her roots were much closer to Hepton. This is reinforced by the fact that out of all the parties Charmian has been invited, this is the only one she has accepted. But tracing Karslake’s past is no easy matter as the quote this review begins with suggests, with Stoddart and Harbord facing many dead ends and red herrings. It also appears that this murder may be fuelled by romance which has gone sour as not only is it suggested Karslake arranged a rendezvous with a man the night of the ball, there is also a tantalising scrap of conversation overheard by the maids from Karslake to an unknown man; a man who is as hard to trace as Karslake’s past is. Another attack occurs at Hepton Abbey complicates the case further and in a similar way to the ending of The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929), this novel is brought to a conclusion with a court case full of twists and turns, ending on an optimistic and reflective note which would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been working my way through Haynes’ novels and as I have done so I have begun to notice something troubling in regards to Inspector Stoddart and that is his derogatory attitude to women, which is at its most noticeable in this novel. For example he takes a dim view of female intelligence and apparel such as when he and his assistant discuss ladies’ handbags:
‘She told me handles had gone out of fashion, the other day’
‘So have brains, I should imagine’.
Another instance which fits comfortably into a stereotypical view of women is:
‘If she has kept silence until now, why should she speak out – ever?’
‘Because she is a woman. And no woman can keep a secret. Unless it is her own. That is my experience.’
Furthermore, when interviewing female witnesses and suspects there is a strong sense of Stoddart faking charm, flattery and sympathy to get the information he wants and the text at these points can convey almost a contempt for the women he is interviewing especially if they are of the servant status. Additionally, he is comfortable using his physical superiority (menacing demeanour rather than actual violence) in order to scare information out of difficult female witnesses. I think it would be interesting if Stoddart actually had to deal with a strong and intelligent female character who burst his long held beliefs in women. Such a character though, is once more lacking in this Haynes novel, which I find a little surprising since Haynes lived with an ardent feminist during her writing career. Overall, I think this has made it hard for me to connect with Inspector Stoddart as a character and it has set me wondering how Haynes herself viewed her detective. Is this depiction of a detective just a case of being of the times or is there another reason behind it all? Interestingly some real life murderers are discussed in the book through Stobbart and Harbord such as Dr. Crippen (whose trial Haynes actually attended in 1910) and also Edith Thompson, who had been hung 6 years earlier prior to the publication of this novel, for being involved in the murder of her husband. Many detective writers found this an interesting case at the time and as I found out in Martin Edwards’ new book, The Golden Age of Murder (2015), Anthony Berekley Cox held a much more sympathetic view of Edith Thompson. Stoddart takes a slightly different view…
‘face like a flower, some ass said. But it was a flower that did not stick at murder when an unfortunate husband stood in the way.’
Another source of tension or perhaps contention in the novel is the way American people are perceived and portrayed. For example such characters are depicted as being contemptuous of British police in such a way which makes them appear unrealistic and unreasonable. This is epitomised when Sadie a matter of hours after the body of Karslake has been found says:
‘Well, you may say what you like about the police methods of this country, but I do believe in the States we should have laid our hands on the murderer before now.’
In addition after the second attack occurs, Sadie’s father turns on Inspector Stoddart saying:
‘But I guess you aren’t quite a Sherlock Holmes yet, or you would have laid Charmian Karslake’s murderer by the heels before now.’
And he then follows this up by hiring an American sleuth to solve the case. Moreover, perhaps a touch of British snobbery is apparent in the novel when our crime solving duo suggest a deficiency in morals in Americans, in particular rich Americans, coming from “new” money:
‘But it is a good thing she is an American. A marriage more or less doesn’t make much difference to them.’
Rating: 4/5 (Overall, as a contemporary reviewer asserts, this novel is ‘an ‘uncommonly well-told murder tale, contrived and worked out with considerable craftsmanship,’ although I don’t think Haynes really plays fair with her choice of killer, as it does come out of nowhere. But I think readers familiar with Golden Age detective fiction will see the irony in the choice. The ending of the novel again highlights a prevalent theme in the Haynes novels which is that reckless and criminal behaviour committed by the young, but particularly by the young, rich and upper class is forgivable. This perhaps makes justice in these novels a little troubling or incomplete.)