Source: Review Copy
Having last reviewed Forsythe’s second novel, The Polo Ground Mystery (1932), last week, I decided to review his first one this week (logical right?). Missing or Murdered (1929), was begun by Forsythe whilst in prison for defrauding the government when he worked at Somerset House and readers enter this story into a government milieu, a milieu perhaps influenced by Forsythe’s own working experiences, with even the odd joke at his own expense and/or his past employers. Gregory Grierson, chief clerk at a government Ministry is said to be acting very worriedly, although this is understandable considering his superior, Lord Bygave has gone missing. Scotland Yard is on the case though, headed by Detective Inspector Heather whose ‘opinion of Mr Grierson was that he was simply a Government official – a man who is very highly paid for doing very little work.’ The explanation for this superficial impression is said to be due to ‘his mind… working under the compelling influence of a great British tradition – the legend that no work has been or is ever done by a civil servant.’ The humour which almost has a Yes Minister (BBC Comedy Show) quality to it continues when the narrator jokingly hints that such officials have the potential to commit fraud. Forsythe would know after all…
Lord Bygave was last seen leaving an inn in the village of Hartwood, using his family name, Henry Darnell, a village which is conveniently close to a farm his nephew and heir, David Winslade owns. Our amateur sleuth, Anthony Vereker, who is also an artist, enters into the case in almost a Tulkinghorn fashion, being the executor and trustee of Bygave’s will. Vereker’s first appearance clearly aligns him with the flippant and slightly eccentric school of fictional detectives, with Inspector Heather’s first impression of him being a ‘rum-looking specimen’ and even Bygave was said to call him ‘that loveable lunatic.’ This demeanour runs throughout the novel with the blasé way Vereker decides to do sleuthing of his own and the way he undercuts the value of his own deductions such as when he and Inspector Heather look at Bygave’s luggage and realise that all their deductions lead to nothing. Vereker also jokingly alludes to phrenology, when he says, ‘there’s nothing much wrong with a man who has a symmetrical skull.’ Yet the value of this pseudo-science is undermined when the footman suggests to him that all his ‘brilliant men and scoundrels have all got asymmetrical heads.’ This type of detective can be annoying in some books, but Forsythe reduces this likelihood through the comical and gentle rivalry between Vereker and Inspector Heather, mirroring Doyle’s Holmes and Lestrade. Moreover, it is interesting that it often seems like the police actually have the upper hand or are on par with Vereker’s own discoveries in the case. Although, Vereker does get to exert his superior knowledge of the classics over Inspector Heather, who thinks that Petronius (author of the Roman text, Satyricon), is one of Vereker’s friends. On the other hand, Inspector Heather gets to laugh at Vereker’s poor attempts at disguising himself.
The case then shifts to investigating Bygave’s home and staff, which brings up a plethora of new information: a suspicious butler, a footman with a secret to tell and a story concerning a mysterious woman who met with Bygave 6 months, leaving him in an agitated state. This part of the story also gives us one of literature’s most absurd lines: ‘prickle the bladder of his audacity’ and yes part of me really wants to try this phrase out now.
A key question for both Inspector Heather and Vereker is whether Bygave is missing or murdered? And if it is the former is this disappearance voluntary or forced? And to Forsythe’s credit this is a mystery which is held right up until the end. This is primarily because the information given to both of these men is frequently dubious and doubtful, either intentionally or accidently by the suspects and witnesses and it is hard to decide whose version of events is the truth and which are red herrings. Furthermore, the more people who are uncovered and are seen to be involved in the case, the harder this becomes such as the mysterious women, who rapidly becomes less so. When the correct solution is finally reached, through both the efforts of Inspector Heather and Vereker, it is an ingenious one, albeit sneaky and I felt the twists and turns to get to this solution were good, especially since you could never entirely trust the new and revised version of events the suspects give.
[Big Spoiler Alert – This paragraph discusses important parts of the plot/solution in regards to their affinity with sensation fiction]
Although I didn’t really see this angle during my reading of the novel, on reflection I can see how many components of the solution/ plot correspond with elements from sensation fiction, a genre popular during the Victorian period. For example, I mentioned how Vereker’s role as amateur sleuth was in the fashion of Tulkinghorn, a reference to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), due to the fact that he was a friend of victim, but also involved in his legal affairs. In sensation fiction, the amateur sleuth such as in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) or The Woman in White (1859), is frequently either a family member, a friend or someone close to those involved in the case. Furthermore, [big spoilers coming] I think this novel can be regarded as a reworking or an alternative version of Lady Audley’s Secret, though perhaps not consciously so. Generally both novels are about past mistakes or events coming to bear on the present, events which entail secret marriages, bigamy and blackmail. Lady Audley’s Secret concerns a woman murdering in order to prevent her bigamy from being found out and in this case the woman is vilified for her actions. Whilst in Missing or Murdered, Muriel Cathcart, the mysterious women I mentioned, married Lord Bygave 20 years ago and later on, after going their separate ways, she committed bigamy by accident, her second husband erroneously telling her, her first one had died. It is the second husband who becomes the killer and is condemned for his actions, whilst Muriel is given the chance to reinvent herself. Finally due to the killer also being Lord Bygave’s cousin, this part of the book also corresponds with the sensation fiction trope which involves long lost relatives who have devious plans.
[Save to resume reading]
Overall, it is a clever mystery and Vereker’s adventures make it an amusing one also. I think the solution to this case is more elaborate than the one in The Polo Ground Mystery but I think The Polo Ground Mystery has a stronger narrative style, particularly in its opening. The narrative style in Missing or Murdered is a little weaker, but this is not surprising considering it is a first novel where there perhaps is a larger reliance on the narrative including Vereker’s theorising on new information, which can feel a little repetitive at times. My recommendation (so far) is to start with The Polo Ground Mystery first, before Missing or Murdered, in order to see why Forsythe is an author every Golden Age mystery fan should try.