Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Hand Holding Weapon
Clyde B. Clason is another new author for me this year and I found it interesting that his writing career was so short (between 1936 and 1941). Yet its’ brevity was not due to ill health or death, as it is with some writers, but because he felt his style of writing had gone out of favour. I can’t say I agree with this as writers within the classical or Golden Age tradition kept on writing for many decades afterwards and some only started once after he had finished such as Edmund Crispin. Despite his short writing career though, Clason did manage to produce 10 novels and he believed that characters and setting were more important than the plot.
Poison Jasmine (1940), begins first with a prologue. Two men, Stuart Grayne and Derek Esterling are about to have a duel. They have grown up as best friends but now they are barely on speaking terms. The duel fizzles out though when Derek runs away, wondering if in saving his life he has lost something else. The narrative then jumps ahead 9 years to a business meeting for a jasmine based perfume, at the home of Etienne Le-Doux, the owner of Le-Doux Perfumes. At this meeting is Jacynth, Etienne’s granddaughter who is also engaged to Etienne’s chief chemist, Derek. Beatrice Morton is in attendance as Etienne’s secretary, along with Sam Preston, Mr and Mrs Chamaron, Stuart and Aaron Todd, who all hold advertising, marketing or financial jobs within the company. Considering past events it is understandable there is some friction between Derek and Stuart, their animosity now being fuelled by a gradually forming love triangle with Jacynth, though Stuart also seems to be causing another female meeting member’s heart rate to rise. I enjoyed how at this meeting the personalities of the characters are revealed through their suggestions for what the new perfume should be called. Events only seem to take a darker turn at lunch after the meeting when Etienne suffers bad stomach pains. He says it is bad indigestion but any mystery reader worth their salt knows better…
In comes Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, who although a historian and academic, has also turned to solving the occasional crime. His skills as a historian actually support his amateur sleuthing and pepper the language he uses to describe his investigative work:
‘Fresh evidence must be collected and sifted, sifted most thoroughly before he would dare to venture an opinion, even to himself.’
Westborough has been asked down by Etienne to go undercover at his house, posing as a potential investor, to see if he can spot the person who tried to poison him. Calling another meeting, Etienne hopes that Westborough can identify the culprit, yet events take an unusual turn, when instead of the poisoner making another attempt on Etienne’s life, Mr Chamaron ends up poisoned after dinner. Things do not look good for Derek who not only had the most opportunity for accessing and using the poisons deployed, but it also seems he got into a dispute with Mr Chamaron when the latter did not fire Stuart at the former’s request. Etienne is keen to shop Derek to the police but Westborough is convinced the trail leading to him is too obvious. But is it? This is an issue which is only resolved at the very end of the story by which time the killer has struck again… Romantic fidelity or rather infidelity is at the heart of this mystery, yet there are no perfect or truly innocent heroines or heroes in this piece which prevent the love element becoming saccharin sweet.
Clason’s focus on characters is evident in this story, with even minor characters being allowed to reveal some of their inner world and life, making them less like stock characters and more memorable and sympathetic. Although for me I found his choice of killer annoying, as I didn’t really want them to be the guilty one, mainly because it felt like they had to do a complete personality U turn in a short space of time to become the killer figure. Though having said this I did like the premise behind the solution and the ingenuity and flaws it encompassed. I think Clason works well within a closed set of characters, keeping you guessing throughout the story. The professor is an enjoyable detective, although I think he lets the killer do most of the work by getting them to explain their crime in detail. I don’t think he has an overt detecting presence in the story. Overall the narrative style is strong and engaging, however, at the start of the story Clason delays giving or clarifying certain pieces of information, which did leave me a bit confused. But as I became familiar with the cast of the story this issue disappeared.