saySource: Review Copy
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Any other animal (Horse)
Robin Forsythe is another new author for me who has been brought to my attention through the Dean Street Press, who have reprinted four other of his books Missing or Murdered (1929), The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1932), The Ginger Cat Mystery (1934) and The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936). This book in particular was also recommended by a reader of my blog, JFW. Unlike many Golden Age writers, Forsythe died during the heyday of this period in 1937. Something else which also makes him stand out is the fact that he began his first detective novel in prison, having committed theft and fraud. As Curtis Evans says in his introduction to the story, Forsythe was the ‘mastermind behind England’s Somerset House stamp trafficking scandal.’ Curtis also interestingly speculates that Forsythe’s criminal activities were spurred on by his wife’s avaricious nature. In light of this speculation I make my own speculation that Forsythe was influenced by his own relationship when creating the female characters of the book, many of whom can be easily described as mercenary and are also adept at manipulating the male characters around them to varying degrees. Allusions to classical relationships such as Diana and Endymion, Adam and Eve and Atalanta and Hippomenes help to reflect this portrayal of women in the book.
The Polo Mystery (1932) opens with a newspaper report describing the murder of Sutton Armadale (a nod to Wilkie Collins in the surname perhaps?), a millionaire sportsman who was shot dead on the polo ground of his home, Vesey Manor in the early hours of the morning. It is also discovered after the event that Sutton’s wife, Angela also had her pearls stolen, valued at £20,000. According to the groundskeeper who found him, his last word was ‘Murder.’ Coinciding with this Armadale’s rival in business, Raymond Braby has been arrested for fraudulent practices, causing significant share slumps. Staying at the manor that night, besides Sutton and his wife, were Sutton’s nephew Basil Ralli, a much sought after by men ballet performer, Edmee Cazas, Captain Rickaby Fanshaugh, Ralph Degerdon, whose father is a well-known stock broker, Mr Aubrey Winter, Angela’s cousin and Mr Stanley Houseley, a friend of Angela’s. I enjoyed the way the opening chapter is structured as it also allowed for satire concerning how newspaper cope with sudden news, in a similar way to the opening of The Rasp (1924) by Philip Macdonald. The opening chapter is also good at presenting the outsider’s impression of Sutton, an impression which gets revised and added to as the novel progresses. At the outset though he is a man of dual identity:
‘Under the intoxicating spell of making money all those kindly, humane, and loveable facets of Sutton Armadale’s magnetic social personality vanished and a demon appeared seized with an unquenchable lust for money and power.’
To solve this case there is of course the Scotland Yard representative, Inspector Heather and also Anthony Vereker, otherwise known as Algernon, an amateur detective and painter, who gets involved in the case through a newspaper editor asking him to go down to the scene of crime to investigate. Vereker’s introduction into the novel is perhaps one of my favourite parts of the book due to the referencing and mirroring of Oscar Wilde’s work. For example, Vereker’s nickname is the name of a character from Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Moreover, the Wildean style of flippant and quippish dialogue is also present as Vereker talks with his very idle friend, Manuel
Ricardo, who has also had past dalliances with Edmee:
‘You misunderstand me, Ricky; I mean that I’ve placed the lady.’
‘Sorry! I thought you’d misplaced your affections.’
‘No, with me that would be tragedy; with you, it has simply become a bad habit.’
In these moments it is not surprising that J. B. Priestley (who among other crime writers liked his work), thought Forsythe ‘belongs to the new school of detective story writers which might be called the brilliant flippant school’. I also enjoyed the bantering relationship Vereker has with Inspector Heather:
‘I dare say there’s a lot you’ve missed that I shall be able to discover. I really must help you to regain some of your lost prestige’
‘You must put on the injured air of an unrecognised genius and feel terribly superior. Genius is its own reward when you’ve got no virtue to boast of!’
Moreover, unlike in the stories of Holmes and Watson or Poirot and Inspector Japp, Inspector Heather is a competent and successful detective and at the denouement of the book he gets to enjoy a deliciously ironic moment at the expense of Vereker, which I liked.
This is a crime with a wide field of suspects and a number of red herrings. There is the theory that the murder was a burglary gone wrong, but despite the allure of tracking down a Raffles-like figure (a reference made in the book), Heather and Vereker quickly dispense with this idea as so many thing just don’t add up. The number of guns and cartridge cases at the scene, a parcel of clothes and cryptic writing in Sutton’s bedroom are just a few examples. There are also a number of potential motives for the crime: a dismissed worker, a rocky marriage with infidelity thrown into the mix, a legatee with a lot to gain and that’s just for starters!
The concluding chapters contain twists and surprises, which although the reader does not expect, are still prepared for. I thought the solution to this case an interesting one, containing elements I had not come across before and the death of Sutton, once solved, throws up a number of moral issues. Moreover, the issue of justice becomes a rather muddied one by the end of the book and although the choice of killer is a good one in that they were hidden in plain sight, I don’t think I was entirely satisfied with the choice, finding it too convenient in some ways for some of the characters. The ending of the novel brought to mind Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham, as both he and Vereker do share similarities such as their fallibility, but also in their more flexible attitude to justice. All in all this reminded me ironically of a line Ricardo says after looking at one of Vereker’s paintings:
‘I’m glad you’re returning to crime detection. The saving grace of murder is that it’s non-controversial.’
Although the writing style could have been improved in some places with Anthony doing less theorising and in particular Forsythe really needed to break his paragraphs into smaller ones, I felt that the interesting characters, the good plot and sneaky solution, along with the Wildean interludes made this book deserve a higher mark. With the skill shown in the book I am keen to sample other works by Forsythe to gain a better impression of his writing, but also to have another good read.