Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Shadowy Figure
This is a book I have had on my TBR pile for a few months now and having read another of Francis Beeding’s works Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931), I was hopeful that this would be another good read. The Norwich Victims (1931) starts unusually (well at least my edition does) as it begins with a series of photographs, supposedly of the story’s characters, with cryptic captions underneath. Initially I wondered if they had a spoiler effect, but since this is an inverted mystery this is not the case.
I enjoyed how the opening two chapters are predominantly from the female point of view, in particular the narration reflects the female gaze on men, which makes a change. First of all there is Hermione Taylor who is in the middle of a love triangle, as she is in a causal relationship with her boss John Throgmorton, which is she unsatisfied with: ‘What had induced her to throw in her life with this nondescript?… There was no glamour in the man.’ But she is really in love with Richard Feiling, whose uncle banished him to France, after he tried to forge a cheque. Throgmorton is an independent stockbroker of sorts and moneylender, though it seems his secretary, Taylor does most of the day to day running of the business, as he frequently disappears for days on end. Even at this early stage Throgmorton is an intriguing character as despite being passive and expressionless, he wields a subtle power. With the business doing less than well at the moment, Feiling’s letter promising to make £5000 into £50,000 is a tempting one…
The narrative then switches to another secretary Elizabeth Orme, who works at her uncle’s (Mr Headlam) school, St Julian Preparatory, with the male under her gaze being the history teacher, Joseph Greening, though her thoughts are far from romantic. These two worlds or character groups that I have mentioned collide in the novel when the school’s matron, Veronica Haslett wins the French lottery and ignoring Headlam’s advice, decides to meet with Throgmorton to discuss more lucrative investments, before going on to France to collect her winnings. However, her meeting with Throgmorton in London is the last thing she will ever do, as Throgmorton brings about her demise, with a sharp pressure to her neck and Taylor takes Haslett’s place in collecting the money. This new source of money also places Throgmorton in a position to work with Feiling, whose own money making schemes revolve around duping his uncle.
However, whilst that is going on, Inspector Martin (and Orme’s fiancé) has a body to deal with, Haslett’s which is found in a train truck at Brighton. Knowing that she was the matron at his fiancée’s school means the investigation starts there, which puts Greening in an awkward position, as on the weekend in question he sneaked off to London where he proceeded to lose all the money and more that he borrowed off Throgmorton through gambling. Eager not to mention any of this, he also withholds information concerning the case, a case which is struggling to progress due to the fact that all the leads, even those leading to Throgmorton go nowhere.
This begins to change though when the body count increases and a vital piece of evidence finally gets revealed to Inspector Martin, but it too little too late? The scheme Feiling plans to execute against his uncle is an interesting secondary plot line which prevents other the primary plot line of Haslett’s murder investigation appearing too slow and in fact within our criminal trio the tension mounts as the novel progresses, as Taylor and Feiling realise what Throgmorton is truly capable of. Throgmorton is a brilliant character, in that he makes a chilling criminal as his facial blankness and the readers’ and characters’ inability to read him prevents them from identifying with him. The narrator (which employs free indirect discourse) sums up Throgmorton well when he thinks: ‘Were the eyes dead or alive behind the spectacles? To Richard he had become a figure of doom, inhuman and mysterious.’
What impressed me the most about this story was not the enjoyable narrative style or dialogue and nor was it the nuanced characterisation of the characters, but the fact that Beeding managed to pull a number of stunning surprises on me within this inverted mystery and his final one could rank with ones Christie pulled at her best. Consequently this is a novel I would recommend to everyone as it is a brilliant read.
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