Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Last week I reviewed Annie’s Haynes’ The Bungalow Mystery (1923), one of her five non-serial novels which Dean Street Press have recently reprinted. This week I have turned my attention to another of these standalone novels, The Witness on the Roof (1925), which has an unusual feature of a child witnessing part of a crime, a trope which Agatha Christie would go on to use with great effect in her novel Sleeping Murder (1976).
The novel begins with our child witness, Polly Spencer, who escapes the difficulties of her family life by hiding on the rooftops of nearby houses, her older sister Evie running away from home instead. Polly often peeks into windows on such outings, yet on one such occasion she has the fright of her life when she sees a woman dead on a hearth rug and a man busy burning papers and pictures. Startled when she realises someone else is watching the same scene behind a door within the house, she makes a run for it.
This story also has a touch of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) about it as while Polly’s father is trying to avoid his child being questioned by the police, Mr Hurst appears stating that due to a number of deaths in his first wife’s family, one of his daughters is eligible under a will to become an heiress, provided they take the family name, Davenant and go to live with their grandmother at Davenant Hall, who has the choice of picking either of the two girls. It seems that Polly mother’s married far below herself when she ran away with Polly’s father, the family coachman. Hoping that Polly will have a better life with her grandmother, her father agrees to give her up and in doing so also distances her from the murder investigation going on. However, Polly’s time with her grandmother is not pleasant, as she is cold and unkind to Polly and even changes her name to Joan. The tale then jumps ahead to when Polly is a young woman, who finally gets to go to a local dance after her cousin Cynthia Treswhistle speaks on her behalf. Yet it seems her grandmother, who has never liked her has one more trick up her sleeve, as when her will is read, (she has the great tact of dying at the ball) it seems she has left pretty much all her fortune to Evie, who now must be found.
Since this is an Annie Haynes’ novel a troubled romance must be included, which in this case involves Polly and Lord Warchester who has recently returned to England. A quick marriage ensues and life seems idyllic, but not for long when one day Polly sees her husband burning papers, a sight which takes her straight back to the scene she saw on the roof all those years ago. Even worse, she has a strong dread that he was that man! A dread which soon begins to gnaw away at their marriage. Another astounding event is the supposed return of Evie, a return Polly has longed for, but can reality live up to such hopes and dreams? Disappointingly Polly finds this is not the case especially as finds Evie had ‘many deficiencies – deficiencies which were not merely of manner, but of heart and mind’ and this definitely seems the case when Evie ducks out of attending her own father’s funeral. Other characters though take a much less charitable view of Evie than Polly and in fact smell a rat.
There are two main mysteries in this novel, yet it seems the solving of one fuels and further complicates the other, putting Polly and her husband’s relationship under even greater strain, especially when the investigation into the body she saw as a child is reopened, with the clues leading far too close to home for comfort. There are a number of different characters searching for the truth in this story, trying to untangle and reveal the multitude of connections and identities within the pool of suspects.
In contrast to The Bungalow Mystery, I think The Witness on the Roof is not as good at balancing the space given to suspect and detecting characters, as the crucial evidence which leads to the mysteries being solved felt rushed in near the end, making the first half of the novel stronger in some ways. Interestingly in these two novels there is plot pattern which begins to emerge which is:
- Crime occurs at start of novel and principal character due to varying reasons does not reveal all or anything to the police;
- Number of years go by and life seems to have moved on but events soon reverse this and leads to the crime of years gone being reopened;
- At this point there is a huge amount of suspicion and tension especially as the principal character tries to fathom the truth, which they are half afraid to know;
- Following this there is a mixture of activity alternating between official detectives and potential suspects who are either trying to uncover the truth, obscure it or profit from it. These event usually show up the gaping holes in the knowledge the principal character has about the crime and
- Eventually the involvement of the police becomes more pronounced in the narrative and the solution is finally revealed, allowing the principal character to realise they have been worrying over nothing.
This pattern suggests a preference on Haynes’ part for having cases solved long after they have been committed, perhaps allowing for a greater sense of upheaval, and also for beginning with her “suspect” characters, developing their personalities and relationships before bringing the police in to the plot. The Witness on the Roof also has parallels with two other Haynes novels which are The Abbey Court Murder (1923) and The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929). In regards to the former The Witness on the Roof shares the trope of a marriage troubled by distrust and both of them significantly depict the emotional worlds of their principal female characters. Whilst with The Crime at Tattenham Corner, both this novel and the one I am reviewing today share a similar class bias, which is a little annoying but not detrimentally so.
I think I was a bit disappointed with the role Polly’s childhood trauma played in the novel, as it is effective in the first half of the novel, but becomes slightly redundant as other lines of investigation come into play. I’m not entirely sure what sort of role I would have liked this element of the plot to have had and maybe it is just me being in a difficult mood as you could argue that the role it does play is similar to how it is played in Christie’s Sleeping Murder where I wasn’t bothered by it. Although I do think I prefer Gwenda Halliday in Christie’s novel to Polly Spencer, as she was just that little bit more proactive and fitted less into the sensation fiction novel heroine, a category Polly hovers rather close to.
Looking back at the mystery of the murder I think Haynes is stronger at hiding the real killer than she in her later novel The Man with the Dark Beard (1928). Moreover, the mystery is hidden for longer in this novel by the fact characters either withhold information or events prevent them from revealing what they know. In one way Haynes does allow you to guess one part of the mystery and I think in doing so makes you drop your guard so you don’t figure out the grand finale as you are too busy following up the theory her seemingly early revelation suggests. I think if Haynes had better balanced her novel the solution, which is good, would have come across better as it would have been less rushed/squished in and certain aspects could have been developed more. However, Haynes is as usual a consummate expert at storytelling and her narrative style carries you through the story in one sitting, with her prose enveloping you in the world she creates. This novel has a number of interesting aspects and is worth reading, but personally I preferred The Bungalow Mystery.