I’m reading this as part of Past Offences’ Monthly Challenge, which has been a great thing to be a part of as it means I’ve come across and read books which otherwise I might have overlooked and Marion Harvey’s The Mystery of the Hidden Room (1922) is one of them. This is a short but action packed novella beginning with the narrator, Carlton Davies being summoned to his married, ex-fiancée’s house late at night. In these initial opening pages it turns out that Ruth, only married another man named Philip Darwin, (which in a way is rather an apt surname for him) so he wouldn’t inform the police about the fact he saw her brother, Dick shoot another man in a gambling den. On reaching Ruth’s house her reason for calling him is slowly revealed, as initially it seems like she’s just a bit depressed. However it turns out that Darwin is planning to ruin Davies after his creepy secretary Orton shows him a torn up letter from Ruth to Davies who she still loves. Things get a lot worse though when Ruth goes to Darwin’s study to retrieve her letter… The clocks strike midnight… a gunshot is heard and when Davies and Orton enter the room they see Darwin’s dead body, a half finished new and Ruth holding a gun in her hand…
Although at the inquest a few anomalies are brought to light such as the doctors disagreeing over the time of death, Darwin having a mysterious meeting with an unknown person prior to his death, the fact no one admits to knowing the woman named as sole legatee of Darwin’s new incomplete will and a handkerchief and jewel-less ring being found at the scene, the minds of the jurors are quickly made up and bring in a verdict against Ruth who is arrested. Despite other people such as Darwin’s suspicious nephew Lee, having a possible motive for killing him, due to the study windows being locked from the inside and Orton and Davies seeing no one leave through the study door, it is hard to show how anyone but Ruth could have done it. But Davies is convinced she is innocent and at the suggestion of his servant, Jenkins, he asks for the help of McKelvie who is:
‘a slender, well-dressed young… refined and cultured man, extremely clever, if eccentric, whose main idiosyncrasies seemed to be confined to a whole-souled worship of Sherlock Holmes, a decidedly autocratic manner, and a fondness for speaking satirically, even at the expense of his friends.’
He is also very good at solving crimes and in the puzzle clue sort of tradition he even presents Davies and therefore the reader with 15 questions which if answered correctly will lead to the solution of the murder. McKelvie’s investigations bring up lots of new information, one point of which is indicated in the title of the novel and consequently widens in some respects the net of suspects. But despite this it seems touch and go whether or not McKelvie and Davies will find hard evidence of Ruth’s innocence and it doesn’t help that people involved in the case have a habit of disappearing, some more permanently than others…
With two confrontation scenes, the former of which having Sherlock Holmes like dramatic qualities, the mystery surrounding this murder case is full of surprises and last minute twists, which only someone on the same level as Holmes himself could have foreseen. Although despite it being very clever I did feel the solution was a bit overdone as part of me was quite frankly amazed that the killer did not need to write each stage of their murder plot down to check they didn’t forget anything, it was that complex and complicated. Furthermore, I feel this was the sort of plot Father Ronald Knox had in mind when he wrote his Decalogue of rules for writing detective fiction in 1928, as this story definitely broke 3 of these rules.
A minor point I want to make concerns the servant, Jenkins, who not only introduces Davies to McKelvic but he also works for him in his spare time. Moreover, it seems McKelvie saved Jenkins’ life in WW1 and that in a past life Jenkins was actually a safe breaker, a past which is now behind him and such skills are only used to help McKelvic. These little details really reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter’s relationship, as well Albert Campion’s sidekick Lugg, who also had a criminal past.
I think this book would be most enjoyed by those who like detective novels transitioning from Victorian into Golden Age detective fiction and readers who love very puzzling crimes and this one in its elaborateness did make me think of John Dickson Carr a little.
Typographical Niggle: The print in this book was ridiculously small, which did reduce the enjoyment of the reading experience a bit, so if you plan to get this book don’t get the edition shown in the picture featured in this post. Alternatively there might be a good at version on the Project Gutenberg site.