Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Spooky House/Mansion
Forsythe’s final novel, The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936) begins with a departure in style, as the previous novels in the series have commenced with the murder or crime having occurred already such as in Missing or Murdered (1929), The Polo Ground Mystery (1932) and The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935) or in the case of The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) with the serial amateur sleuth Anthony Vereker (Algernon) and his friend Manuel Ricardo. However, this story starts with no crime having already taken place and with two non-serial characters, John Thurlow and his niece Eileen who both have an interest in spiritualism. After a brief experiment in this hobby which leads to organ music being heard, forebodingly Handel’s Death March, uncle and niece retire for the night. Yet the following morning John is nowhere to be seen. His revolver is missing and all the doors to their home are locked from the inside, but, as Eileen wonders, why would he leave by the window?
Eileen is an unusual heroine who is a bit paradoxical or inconsistent depending on how cynical you are. Due to her interest in spiritualism she is partially painted as ethereal and imaginative, yet the narrative does note that she was also:
‘Endowed with considerable resolution and a capacity for action [and that] Men found her attractive at first, but were soon repelled by a mental aloofness and frigidity which seemed to imply that they did not greatly interest her.’
Yet in the subsequent chapter she appears to respond very warmly to her neighbour, Arthur Orton’s attentions when he tries to soothe her anxieties over her uncle. Moreover, throughout the story she oscillates between looking for supernatural reasons for what happens and searching for natural ones: ‘the affair must have some simple explanation, however preternatural it might appear.’ Interestingly there is also a suggestion thrown out later in the novel that she might suffer from a mild form of epilepsy, but this is not really followed up. Personally I don’t think she is stably constructed as a character or perhaps it is just a case of her being hard to pin down. Fortunately though she doesn’t really play a significant part in the story so if she isn’t your cup of tea character wise she isn’t really much of a problem, though I do feel there are some unanswered questions surrounding her.
This initial mystery has similarities with Missing or Murdered, where the reader is unsure whether the person who has disappeared is alive or dead. However, Forsythe is not repeating himself as the mystery becomes more perplexing. On the previous Friday another local man has disappeared, Clarry Martin, and the day after John vanished, both he and Clarry are found dead on a stretch of wasteland. Initially it seems as though each victim was responsible for the other’s death, as the relevant murder weapons are close at hand and it is also known that both of these men were after the attentions of Dawn Garford, a young flirtatious widow. Clarry has been shot in the shoulder and John has had his head smashed in with a blunt instrument. Yet the post mortem complicates the case considerably. Clarry’s wound wouldn’t have killed him, but it would have prevented him from using the blunt instrument in question and both men’s injuries occur from an attack behind them.
Thankfully Algernon is staying in the local village doing some landscape drawings and a quick phone call also brings his rascal of a friend Ricardo. The complexity of the case also means Scotland Yard is brought in, meaning Inspector Heather is also able to get involved. There are a number of leads to explore such as an indiscretion in John’s past, a suspicious newcomer to the area, a gardener with a criminal history and grudge against his employer and some eerie goings on at John’s home. I’m refraining from saying any more about the plot as I don’t wish to spoil it for readers, as there are things I could say which would show its’ exciting and dramatic elements, but would unfortunately probably also give the solution away. But the race is on to solve the case, not out of worry for the killer striking again, but because Heather and Algernon have a bet on as to who can solve the crimes first.
Overall I think this is a solid mystery, with some gothic hues and what makes this the strongest novel out of all Forsythe’s novels is that Algernon is not allowed to painstakingly theorise over many paragraphs, which in other books can become repetitive. Consequently the narrative was significantly stronger and more engaging, with a better pace. Algernon and Ricardo are a delight in this novel being fun to read without becoming wearing:
‘What about a gas gun to be thoroughly up-to-date?’
‘You’ll be an excellent substitute, Ricky!’
One thing I have noticed with Forsythe’s work is the emotional trajectory which takes place within Algernon, who goes into a case to assuage his ennui and feels exhilarated whilst investigating and finding the solution, but on discovering the killer emotionally drops and I think this can be felt in the endings of the novels. I would be interested to hear if anyone else has found this to be the case, as this sort of trajectory is quite common in detective fiction in my opinion.