Source: Review Copy
‘Altogether the face in the glass looked like that of a woman oppressed by some terrible dread – some nameless horror!’
It is unsurprising that Lady Anne Daventry looks this way when it appears that someone within her household has been trying to murder her through two poisoning attempts. Yet Lady Anne is not prepared to do nothing and wait for a third attempt and therefore calls in Bruce Cardyn, the junior partner in Wilkins and Alleyn’s private inquiry agency. Lady Anne may be introduced to us as the stereotypical grumpy old rich lady of fiction; Haynes laying it was a trowel:
‘Not on the whole an agreeable character! Lady Anne was an irritable, impatient old lady, and looked it!’
But it seems that it is her money which tops the list of reasons why people might want to kill her, with everyone from servants to family members benefiting. Though to be honest her reputation as an unlikeable individual seems inaccurate or exaggerated as on the whole Lady Anne isn’t that bad in contrast to the tyrants other Golden Age authors created. The characters who are most involved in the novel are:
- Soames, who is the butler;
- Miss Pirnie, who is Lady Anne’s personal maid
- Alice, a maid who has been looking after;
- Maureen Fyvert who is Lady Anne’s rather taxing 11 year old niece and is staying at home recovering from measles and is sister to;
- 20 year old Dorothy Fyvert who is cousins with;
- John Daventry. He doesn’t live with Lady Anne but visits sufficiently to be included as a possible assassin. In years gone by it was suggested he should marry Dorothy, but it seems John’s heart is much keener on;
- Margaret Balmaine, who is Lady Anne’s husband’s granddaughter from his first marriage. His daughter rang away to Australia and her daughter showed up a few months ago. (Any fans of Golden Age novels will have pricked up their ears at this bit of information).
- David Branksome also makes the list as Lady Anne’s recently fired secretary, on the grounds he was being too attentive to Margaret. Side note: Does this description of him remind you of anyone: ‘ fair hair and a monocle screwed into his left eye’? If he wasn’t a suspect then it would make you think it was a possible parody of a certain aristocratic sleuth.
Bruce is eager to take on the case, planning to pose as Lady Anne’s new secretary, though it would appear he has an ulterior motive for taking the case. Why was he so shocked by the name of one of the household members? This set up of the attempted killings and the calling in of a non-police source of detection reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House (1932), though of course a different twist is used there. Some movement occurs in the case when Bruce gets a hold of a photograph of a woman called Daisy Melville, who of course unsurprisingly is going under a different name within Lady Anne’s house. A luncheon at Lady Anne’s brings about new developments, with it seeming that Dorothy and Bruce have met before under different circumstances and more importantly, Lady Anne’s pearls have been found to be stolen. But more dramatic events are follow, as while Lady Anne, Dorothy, Bruce, Margaret and John are having tea and examining a dagger belonging to Lady Anne’s relative, a white chalky face with mist around it appears at the window. The latter four household members and Soames rush to investigate, yet when they turn around again worse is to come: Lady Anne has been stabbed with the dagger.
Inspector Furnival is called in to investigate and unlike his first outing in The Abbey Court Murder (1923) we get to learn a little bit more about him:
‘Rather unlike the ordinary detective of fiction in that he was small and alert looking. His sharp inquisitive-looking little face had earned him the sobriquet of “The Ferret”… there were many a crook who had learned to dread the Ferret’s gimlet-like grey eyes more than he dreaded anything on earth.’
A key puzzle for him to solve is who or what the face was, as neither of the people in the room could even identify the gender. Was it a man? Was it a woman? Or just an allusion to draw attention and like the mask which was used in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), form an intrinsic part of the murderer’s schemes? It seems even the supernatural is considered by some of the suspects. Additionally I felt the way that the list of suspects is limited to those in the room was like Christie’s novel Cards on the Table (1936). Of course a set of footprints outside one of the windows does point to the possibility of an outside killer. Though suspicious behaviour within the household maintains most of Furnival’s focus, with several inmates of the house being strapped for cash and others arranging furtive meetings. In regards to the stolen pearls, further instances make this a far more puzzling case than a mere robbery. In true Holmes and Watson style, Bruce seems to following Furnival as he progresses through his case, yet their relationship does differ from the archetype, as it seems Bruce would rather be uninvolved, only being compelled to stay by the threat of being arrested. What hold does Furnival have over him? Again Furnival resorts to flirting with the servants to elicit information, making this the fourth Haynes novel I have read where it seems standard practice for the police to emotionally manipulate lower class women into revealing what they know. I’m not sure whether Haynes thought this was an expected element of the plot. More facetiously one could wonder whether she genuinely thought that’s what policemen did.
Unlike other Haynes’ novels such as The Abbey Court Murder, there is no likeable young female, with Dorothy in this novel being the most annoying, acting like a snob and brat when she finds out Bruce is a private detective and her later change of heart did feel a little convenient. But more important things are afoot and like other Haynes’ novels dramatic events accumulate running up to the revelation of the killer, with kidnapping, secret identities being exposed and arrests being made.
This is a well plotted novel, which has elements that can be seen deployed in later Christie novels and The House in Charlton Crescent (1926) has plenty to boggle and puzzle the reader throughout, with the title of killer being up for grabs right until the end. As ever Haynes’ characterisation is strong, with the effects of mental strain on the suspects being well written. Additionally I did enjoy seeing more of Inspector Furnival, though I do feel having read both novels featuring Furnival and Stoddart that Haynes seems to only write one kind of police detective. My only qualms about the book are that I felt the ending was a little anticlimactic after the revelation of the murderer, as it focuses on one of the more minor and rather dull characters. I think other novels’ of Haynes have had much more entertaining endings. Moreover, the attempts to mitigate the murderer felt a bit weak and rushed, with the effect that they felt rather tacked on to the story. My final niggle is that there were quite a few places where in the dialogue personal pronouns had been missed out meaning the sentences didn’t read as easily.