Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: A Blonde (Man or Woman)
Like Georgette Heyer’s novels, Wentworth’s The Finger Print (1959) begins by building up to the crime. Detective Inspector Frank Abbott attends a dance, with his friend Anthony Hallam, hosted by Jonathan Field, a man known for a collection of finger prints he keeps. A story he likes to regale guests with is that of the murderer who he met when trapped in a bombed building during the Blitz and whose finger prints are said to be in his collection. The dance is in honour of Field’s niece Georgina Grey, who is assumed to be his heir and is being courted by Hallam. The dance is also held for Mirrie Field, a very distant relative, who has only been recently discovered and the reader is not slow to realise that as an impoverished young girl she is keen to make sure she makes the most of her new found comfort. She is certainly no good as gold and pure hearted Cinderella, a fairy tale which is mirrored in this tale, though with a twist.
A point which came out of a discussion had in the comments section of my last review on Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Dolphin (1967) was of how Golden Age authors used theatre in their works and sometimes in a more figurative sense. Wentworth opts for this latter option in this novel were theatre is used as a metaphor to convey a change in time and place:
‘It is curious to reflect that whereas on the stage an actor is within the limits of his own play and is always aware of what kind of play it is… in real life he has no such knowledge and finds himself sliding from one play to another, with the players continually changing…After a pleasant preliminary scene at Field End in what appeared to be a drawing room comedy the Cressington case was stark melodrama. Frank had left one theatre and been hurried onto the boards in another. But the Field End play went on without him.’
I think also the idea of playing a part is apt for the later events in the book where it could be said that certain characters are performing a role for their own advantage.
However, things are not going well for Georgina Grey who on receiving an anonymous letter castigating her for her apparent unkindness towards Mirrie, is then rejected by her uncle who believes the letter over Georgina. As is expected in a Golden Age mystery of this type, a will change is announced. But things are not so rosy for Jonathan Field either who having gone to achieve this aforementioned will change is found murdered the following night by Georgina, who like many a heroine before her, picks up the weapon which did the deed. But this is a Wentworth novel, so Georgina’s innocence is not in question for us, though the same cannot be said for the police. Who did the murder though? Suspicion is cast over many characters inside and outside the household. Mirrie has been acting incredibly suspiciously with surreptitious phone calls and letters. There is also the house keeper’s son to look to, Johnny Fabian, who is a womaniser with little money. The fact that a page from the fingerprint album is missing is also telling.
Thankfully Abbott has Miss silver to help who is conveniently staying at his cousin’s house which is near the scene of the crime and nothing gets past her notice:
‘The look which Miss Silver had turned upon her was neither cool nor cynical. It was kind, but it was penetrating. She felt as if it went right through her and out at the other side.’
Although I really like the character of Miss Silver, I think the romantic worldview of Wentworth’s novels means that the mystery side in this particular novel was handicapped to an extent, as the reader knows which characters are likely to not be guilty and equally are aware of the narrative arc and tropes which will appear. Due to this predictability, dramatic situations lose their drama (and the ending of this novel is no exception), as you know no ill can come of them for those who are the “good” characters. However, I did enjoy the way Wentworth plays with our sympathies in regards to certain characters, making them ambiguous figures in terms of likeability and their moral culpability. Again these could have been made more of, if Wentworth had not taken such a conventional route with her crime’s solution. Moreover, a slight bugbear was the pacing of the last third of the novel, where the killer is really obvious but takes the police a very long time to get around to arresting them. Wentworth novels are often warm and cosy gentle reads (though I have read some which have flashes of brilliance in them) and this book is no exception. Great demands are not made of the reader but overall, Wentworth is quite a good story teller even if she is doesn’t particularly think outside the box, which is the case here.