Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Car/ Truck
This a book I got through a secret Santa last year and I looked forward to reading it as Elizabeth Daly has been on my radar but I have never read any of her work before. She created the amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge, whose name made me think of something akin to Dr Fell, but in this story, his first appearance he is a reasonably young man. Gamadge seems to have a manuscript/book authenticating business and has a keen eye for literary forgeries, a skill that comes into play in this story in a minor way. Unexpected Night (1940) though, begins with a car driving through the fog. Inside are two women, Eleanor and Alma Cowden who are aunt and sister respectively to another passenger, Amberley who in a matter of hours will become of age. This means he will come into his substantial inheritance rather than the money passing over to a French relative. The likelihood of him reaching this important milestone has not been great as Amberley has a very serious heart condition, having regular attacks and is therefore not expected to have a long life. Unusually for an invalid character in a traditional murder mystery Amberley is not old and although inconsiderate at times, is not particularly tyrannical. Driving the car is Hugo Sanderson, Amberley’s tutor, who is not happy with how Amberley plans to spend his birthday, namely joining Arthur Atwood, his disreputable cousin, at his summer theatre with a view to backing the venture and also living it rough in a tent.
For the present though they are heading to a summer resort at Ford’s Beach, stopping at a relative’s cottage. It is here that we are introduced to the Barclay family and Gamadge, who is staying at the resort on holiday and whose demeanour makes him stand from the others. Amerley also stands out in Gamadge’s eyes as a rich man surrounded by poor relations and it is hard for the issue of money not to arise. Amberley himself brings it up saying that when he comes of age he will sign his will, leaving the majority of his money to Alma, but also giving substantial amounts to Atwood, Lieutenant Barclay (Colonel and Mrs Barclay’s son) and Eleanor Cowden. Eventually the Cowden party make it to the hotel in the early hours of Amberley’s birthday, who shortly after arriving is seen trying to make a surreptitious exit from the establishment. Consequently readers are not surprised when the next morning, Amberley is found dead at the bottom of a cliff and his unsigned will is gone. It is assumed that Amberley went out to meet someone, probably Atwood and had a heart attack near the cliff edge and fell over it. But with all that money the local authorities, in the form of Detective Mitchell, are keen to dig a little deeper. One gripe I did have with the novel is with how keen Mitchell is to have Gamadge involved in the case. He is not a significant witness and he is not known for his amateur sleuthing qualities. Yet Mitchell is determined to have him help with questioning Eleanor and Alma (who is apparently prostrated with grief), amongst others.
To discover why Amberley left the hotel that night, the detecting team’s attention switches to Atwood, whom the former sent a message to hinting at a pre-arranged meeting. Atwood in a typically theatrical and exhibitionist style denies such an arrangement. Although this trip to Atwood’s theatre also brings up another death, that of one of the actresses. But was it just an accidental overdose or something more deliberate? And is it connected to Amberley’s death? Suspicion around Atwood increases as his alibi for the previous night is called into question. Yet a lack of substantial proof prevents Mitchell and Gamadge’s doubts being able to break his alibi conclusively. Unsurprisingly the other suspects favour Atwood as the likeliest candidate for murder, but is he just a scape goat? He may not make a great impression on the police, but it is fair to say he is not the only one giving an offstage ‘performance.’
Meanwhile Alma is in quite a state not necessarily due to missing her brother but of her fear of becoming another victim, something she thinks is very likely because as Amberley died intestate she is his sole beneficiary. A near miss with a golf ball later on seems to justify her anxiety. With further violence to follow it seems like Alma is not the only person who needs to be concerned with their personal safety. Although it is through these events that Gamadge is able to find the key to the mystery.
In many ways this is a strong first novel for Daly as her narrative style is engaging and Gamadge is a likeable and appealing amateur sleuth even if his entry into the world of detection seems slightly more implausible than usual for the genre. Her character types are familiar but she individualised them well and her plot on the whole is a solid one. But for me I think there needed to be more concrete evidence to support the final solution, as it does feel like criminal confession helped Gamadge a lot in the end. Moreover, I think Daly needed to create a more perplexing solution as early on in the story I guessed a major element of the mystery as it was the only sneaky twist I could think possible with the scenario given. I would be interested to hear from readers who have read later Gamadge mysteries, as to whether Daly improves in these areas, as in other respects Daly shows a lot of promise.
Rating: When looking at the various components of this novel my rating ranged from 3.5-4, so ultimately I decided to go for an overall rating of 3.75/5.