‘…this assassin kills, but remains invisible.’
Source: Review Copy
Murder of a Lady (1931) was written by Anthony Wynne which was a pseudonym for Robert McNair Wilson, who a doctor, like his amateur sleuth, Doctor Hailey, who comfortably fits within the “Great Detective” tradition. This mystery is set in the wilds of Scotland and is bursting with action from the first page where Dr Hailey is rushed to Duchlan castle late at night. Mary Gregor has been murdered, and is found crouching by her bed with a wound to her shoulder. The circumstances make this case a seemingly impossible crime, with the bedroom door and windows being locked from the inside, the outside wall being unclimbable, their being little bleeding from the wound and no weapon within the vicinity and even more perplexing is the presence of a herring scale in the wound and a long scar which suggests that someone else in the past had murderous intentions towards Mary…
Initially the household can’t possibly think of any reason why someone would want Mary dead, with her brother, Duchlan speaking of her in awe. Also staying at the castle is Eoghan, Duchlan’s son who returned the night of Mary’s death, Oonagh his wife and his son, Hamish. Yet of course her saintly image becomes increasingly debunked as the story goes on and thematically I found this book to be a precursor to Joan Coggin’s Why did she die? (1947), especially in regards to the choice of the primary victim:
‘She wanted to have a hand in the future of the family. To belong to the future as women do who have children of their own. Because she couldn’t bear children who would be members of her family, she wanted to steal the children other women had borne so she could stamp her personality and ideas on their minds.’
However, this is not a character study detective novel like Coggin’s is and throughout the story the plot is filled with action and mysterious goings on including Hailey saving Oonagh from drowning herself, an act Duchlan clearly knew was going to happen… Throughout the book those in close relationships are placed under great strain suspecting each other and trying to divert suspicion. But what really racks up the tension is the subsequent murders, all as seemingly impossible as the first one, even when committed in front of witnesses and the choice of victims for these killings are darkly humorous and racks up the tension for the other characters.
At the beginning, Dr Hailey is warned off by the official investigator in doing any amateur sleuthing, yet as the local community becomes hostile to police questioning and as the body count rises this changes and Hailey is given a free hand in the case, which is something in the “Great Detective” style he absolutely insists on:
‘I’m an amateur, not a professional, and my studies of crime are undertaken only because they interest me. When I work alone my mind gropes about until it finds something which appeals to it. I follow a line of investigation often without exactly knowing why I’m following it – it would be intolerable to have to explain and justify every step…’
Hailey firmly believes that finding out more about Mary’s past and the dynamics within the household will reveal the killer, which becomes increasingly corroborated as present events parallel those of the seemingly long forgotten past. This is definitely a tale of dysfunctional and twisted love, of love that failed and of love which gets a second chance and I like how Hailey is interested in resolving relationship problems as well as solving the case and is not afraid of taking important people to task. Additionally, the quiet power he can exert reminded me of Christie’s Miss Marple.
One interesting comparison I would like to make is between Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Inspector Barley, as based on his language and speech it seems likely he has a French/Continental background and the way he talked reminded me of Poirot a lot:
‘But, of course, it’s a detail… My dear doctor, I believe that the solution of this mystery cannot now be long delayed… Que voulez-vous? What a point: that thumping of the wooden leg on the wooden stairs! The old woman listening. Hearing the ‘thump, thump’ down to the first floor…’
‘…the proof of the pudding is in the eating?’
Though I think Barley could have used a few less Latin tags/quotes – he’s not Lord Peter Wimsey after all!
Like the beginning of the novel, the ending is suitably filled with drama, as Hailey tries to maintain control and order, as other characters get ever more hysterical about the unidentifiable menace in the house, some believing the deaths are caused by an angry spirit. The conflict between superstition and science is subtly woven into the text, with Hailey against the odds standing up for reason and logic. Moreover, especially at the beginning of the story Hailey consistently dispels any superstitious ideas, which made me wonder if this made the text differ from some of John Dickson Carr’s more gothic imaginings. But how many more deaths will occur before Hailey finally hits on the truth? The choice of killer was a good one in my opinion, being believable and sneakily hidden in plain sight. Having not read many impossible crime stories, I thought the solution to this one, although a bit fantastical, quite unusual and sneaky, though how Hailey discovered it I have no idea! However, I do wonder whether more well-read readers of impossible crimes would find it as unusual? I think my only significant criticism would be that the story ended too abruptly.
Rating: 4/5 Definitely recommended
N. B. Once you have read the book (as I am sure you will all do now) I recommend reading the blurb, as there is one sentence on the back of British Library reprint which is just hilarious, in light of events in the book. Won’t say any more but it did make me smile.