Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Brunette (Man or Woman)
Like my previous read, The Factory on the Cliff, this is another novel from 1928 and is another new author to me, though Vernon Loder was only one of the many pennames for Jack Vahey. The Mystery at Stowe was Loder’s first work and Nigel Moss reveals a number of other interesting facts about Loder’s writing process, which seemed contained within two hours of writing in the morning. Although unfortunately Moss does seem to subscribe to the familiar and well-worn narrative of Golden Age detection being a purely ‘intellectual recreation,’ regurgitating ideas such as the ‘characterisation was subordinate to plot’ and that ‘readers were not required to think too deeply or moralise and psychology was largely absent.’ But on the other hand he does mention Martin Edwards’ wonderful book The Golden Age of Murder (2015) so we’ll let him off.
The story begins with the young Mrs Netta Gailey and Miss Nelly Sayers (which I like to think is a nod to Dorothy L. Sayers, but probably isn’t) playing billiards, discussing the likelihood of Edward and Margery Tollard having a fight. The predicted fight is due to the fact that Edward is not only financing Elaine Gurdon’s next expedition, but he is also spending a lot of time with her, to the extent tongues are starting to wag, especially since Edward and Elaine seem much more compatible, both being athletic and active. Conversely Margery is said to look ‘excessively fragile,… her function in life… ornamental’. Along with Mr and Mrs Head, Ortho Haine and Jane Minever, they are all staying at a manor house called Stowe, owned by Mr Barley. In particular Barley invited the Tollards and Gurdon to help resolve the tension between them. This of course does not go to plan leading to Margery staying in her room all day complaining of a headache and Edward going back to town on so called “urgent business”. During the early hours of the following morning Mr Barley hears a thud, which is followed by Elaine entering his room to tell him Margery is dead. Margery’s window may have been open but to everyone including the police there seems to be only two suspects, Elaine and Edward.
The majority of the suspicion is placed on Elaine though, since the murder weapon appears to have been a poisoned blow pipe dart, something Elaine is able to use and she also sold one to Mr Barley. Moreover, it seems Edward has an alibi having travelled to the Isle of Wright – but is this alibi too convenient to be true? Elaine’s behaviour and reactions are also heavily scrutinised although it is interesting that through the eye of Gailey and Sayers we are able to see different interpretations of this. The inmates of Stowe are initially keen to down play the Tollard marital discord, but through adept questioning by Superintendent Fisher, Gailey lets it slip. The evidence is not purely against Elaine as the gamekeeper’s testimony provides a puzzling piece of information to the case.
Whilst this is all going on an old friend of Elaine’s arrives, Jim Carton, who has recently arrived from Africa where he was an assistant commissioner. It seems they have a past, as she once rejected his marriage proposal, though it appears he is keen to give it another try. He just has to prove Elaine’s innocence first. One thing that did baffle was that in the original foreword to the novel it is said that Carton believed there were five motives for murder: anger, jealousy, robbery, greed and hate. But in the story itself when the motive types are mentioned I can only find four (despite Carton asserting there are five reasons), greed is not there. The relationship dynamics between Elaine, Edward and Jim are well written and explored as although Edward is the epitome of the grieving widow, he is regularly hostile towards Jim and is forever spending time alone with Elaine. Jim unsurprisingly feels troubled by this, with his interactions with Elaine becoming increasingly strained, filled with distrust on both sides. Additionally the narrator is keen to point out Carton’s partiality in his investigative work:
‘When Jim Carton advised Elaine of the advantage of being logical, and looking at everything with an open mind, he was following the common practice of recommending a course he himself was not following… Prejudices will creep in, habits give the mind a twist, certain pathways are never explored, and exceptions are made unconsciously.’
The group psychology within Stowe was also interesting to watch and it was intriguing that Carton is often not a very popular figure with many of the Stowe inhabitants – one even goes so far as to suggest he is the real murderer! They are also quite dubious of his sleuthing complaining that he has yet to discover anything. Yet this soon changes when he brings to light a number of interesting clues. But are these genuine or just red herrings? And will they prove Elaine’s innocence or condemn her further? Furthermore, despite the very real threat of being arrested why is Elaine so keen for Carton to stop investigating? What does she know that she is not telling? Silence is a key stumbling block for the case yet Carton finally finds the truth.
The final solution is impressive and was definitely unexpected, though plausibility is probably stretched a bit – not that this ruins the reading experience of course and I did enjoy the originality of the solution. The ending is a little rushed in my opinion, but no more so than many other novels from the genre. I liked how the women were initially portrayed as they seemed to be more active and out of ordinary, especially Elaine who is an explorer. It was a shame though that this independent outlook was not maintained throughout the story. In the beginning the passivity and stubbornness of Margery is scorned and disparaged by many, including by Elaine. Yet, despite saying she will do sleuthing of her own, Elaine becomes stubbornly passive as the case progresses. When reading this novel I felt it had elements which reminded me of later Christie novels. Carton is also an enjoyable amateur sleuth, though according to the introduction this is his only appearance unfortunately. Loder also incorporates touches of humour into the work such as in his character descriptions. For example Gailey says that ‘Margery hasn’t a backbone even the X-rays could detect.’ Whilst others say of Margery that she ‘was a Botticelli come to life; others said she had never really come to life at all…’ Although I think my favourite is about Barley who during the investigation is said to be ‘hovering about the hall, like a distracted foster-mother of chicks.’ Overall this was an entertaining read, where things are not always what they seem.