Source: Review Copy
Until reading this book, I had never heard of Bernard Capes, but Hugh Lamb’s introduction to the recent Collin Crime Club reprint was excellent at remedying this, with facts ranging from Capes having written 40 books in 20 years to him also having given rabbit breeding a good as a career (it did not go well). This introduction also mentions what Julian Symons Bloody Murder (1972) made of Capes, a ‘neglected tour de force.’ The Mystery of the Skeleton Key (1919) went on to become a success, however Capes never got to see this, as he died during the influenza epidemic which followed WW1. This edition also includes the introduction G. K. Chesterton wrote for the book when it was reprinted after his death. To be honest I don’t think this is Chesterton at his best and if you want to know more about the book and the author I would stick with the introduction by Lamb.
The story begins with Vivian Bickerdike recounting how he first met Baron Le Sage in Paris and how he meet him again in London as they travel down together to the same country house, Wildshott, which is owned by tyrannical Sir Calvin, the father of Vivian’s friend Hugo Kennett (although he is also called Hugh,) who is currently out of sorts. Whilst this opening is rather slow, it does help to present a picture of the Baron, a man who is good at knowing or deducing information about others, but is very reticent about himself, making Vivian rather suspicious and annoyed at him. Vivian suggests he likes being secretive in order that he can be surprising and one does wonder whether there will be a Watson/ Holmes relationship with them, especially since some of the chapters are from Bickerdike’s manuscripts. Though this is not to be and I think that particular relationship is something Capes tries to avoid such as when Bickerdike extols the virtues of the official police.
The narrative picks up a lot when one of the maids, Annie Evans is murdered, a woman of immense beauty. Many of the male members of the household come under scrutiny such as the Baron’s valet, Louis, who tried to kiss her and got a slap in response, the butler and even Hugo Kennett, whose gun was used to do the deed. Circumstantial evidence and a failing to find out anything about Annie’s past, the police investigation leads to Louis being committed for trial. Yet it seems neither Sergeant Ridgeway nor the Baron are satisfied with this result. The highlight of this novel is the court room scene, where the reader and the jury alike feel they have got their money’s worth in dramatic turn arounds and resulting in a situation where the stakes are much higher for the Wildshott household. But it seems the Baron has not yet finished and he brings in a surprising correct solution to the case, a solution which makes the minor incidents and tangents at the beginning of the novel all the more important.
Throughout the case there are two other sub-narratives, that of a complicated romance, headed by Hugo’s sister, Audrey and also that of Bickerdike’s own investigations in to the murder and also into the Baron and it seems Bickerdike is the last person in the story to realise the truth about him. In a way I have to side with Audrey who doesn’t really get on with Bickerdike, as although he thinks he is trying to help, he mostly seems to do the complete opposite and in the beginning when the servants are being regarded as the most likely suspects, his excited attitude towards the case is a bit deplorable.
There is one passage in the book I want to focus in on as it was unexpected and rather intrigued me. Whilst talking to the Baron, Sergeant Ridgeway says how nice it would be to own Wildshott and:
‘Which would you rather, sir – be a police officer, or the owner of an estate like this? If such things were properly distributed… there’d be no need perhaps for police officers at all. You read the papers about a case like ours here, and you see only a romance; we, whose necessity puts us behind the scenes, see only in nine cases out of ten, the dirty mishandling of Fate. Give a man his right position in the world, and he’ll commit no crimes. That’s my belief, and its founded on some experience.’
The concept of wealth distribution on the one hand made me think of Communism and thought it an unusual idea to find in the book. On the other hand though it also seems like Ridgeway believes in people having their ‘right position’ or place, which swings over to a more feudal or classist view point and he does admit that he would like a place like Wildshott. This led me to perhaps conclude that Ridgeway’s opinions are fuelled by envy jealousy as opposed to having specific political beliefs. I think it would be going too far to say Capes was commenting on Communism and Russia, which at the time was still in a state of civil war/ coming to terms with the new system. Finally, there is also the idea that crime is caused by lack of money or poverty, ‘the dirty mishandling of Fate,’ which leaves people in states where crime seems the only option. Yet, ironically this is not necessarily the case in this story.
The choice of killer is a good one and very surprising. But my problem with it is that the solution came out of nowhere in a way similar to Annie Haynes’ Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929), which was annoying. I also saw a significant parallel with a Christie novel, but of course I cannot say what without giving the solution away, but it did make me wonder if she had come across the book herself. The evidence the Baron uses to solve the crime is often withheld, including the skeleton key mentioned in the title and another bit of evidence in my opinion is a bit implausible. This is a rather misleading title, as the aforementioned key is not revealed until the Baron’s solution and I think there are much more significant pieces of evidence in the Baron’s case against the killer. The problems with the lack of openness of the evidence weakens the ending considerably, which is shame as in the middle of the book, the story improved greatly. In contrast to Ngaio Marsh whose novels tend to have poor middles, Capes seems to struggle with his beginnings and endings. Furthermore, the denouement of the novel after the solution is very disjointed and clunky to the extent that temporarily I did wonder if one of the pages was in the wrong order.
Despite a surprising solution and a first rate courtroom scene, this book was a bit of a disappointment and overall the writing style was overly wordy and descriptive and at times clunky, which is a shame as it did have some intriguing elements to it.