Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Skeletal Hand
This is my second time reading Clason’s work, with my first being his novel Poison Jasmine (1940). Dragon’s Cave (1940) (the title deriving from a line in Romeo and Juliet – so sadly no actual dragons involved) begins with Julian Carr (a nod to John Dickson Carr maybe in the last name?) walking Madeline Wright home one snowy evening after taking part in a local production of Romeo and Juliet. Theirs is a complicated relationship as Julian is already married, his wife Ysabeau having left him, yet not agreeing to a divorce. Moreover, Madeline is unsure of his affections, having that perennial heroine problem of loving a man who comes across as aloof and supercilious. Julian also has a high position at Madeline’s father’s (Jonas) photo engraving plant. This has caused some friction between Julian and Wellington, Madeline’s older brother who resents his easy rise to the top whilst he has had to work up from the bottom and this resentment spills out into a fight when Julian and Madeleine return. At this stage there is also the suggestion that Madeleine had some sort of an awkward past relationship with another worker at her father’s business, Tony Corveau, who has recently been fired.
Disaster strikes the household when on trying to return the rapier Jonas lent the theatrical company, Madeleine and Julian find blood on the hall floor leading to the weaponry room Jonas has. When the police break in to the room (which is never locked usually) they find Jonas murdered, with a bloody halberd next to him, though to confuse matters the blood spatter patterns don’t add up. The windows are locked from the inside and have a burglar alarm attached to them and although locked, the key to the door is missing, along with Jonas’ watch and bill fold. Lieutenant John Mack is called into investigate and of course he brings his dinner companion, Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, in to help. Due to the setup it seems like an inside job leaving Mack with six suspects including: Madeline, Julian, Wellington, Madeline’s mother Emily, the maid Hilda Hammer and Martin, Madeline’s younger brother. The subsequent police interviews are very well done as they are very telling of the suspects revealing the family dynamics and also showing what lies they are choosing to tell such as Madeline and Julian who expunge their relationship from their alibis.
Initially there are a number of motives for Jonas’ death. He was unhappy about his daughter’s relationship with Julian and there have been other family quarrels. Difficulties within the family business place suspicion elsewhere. Even the maid comes under close scrutiny when it turns out she was meeting her brother that evening, who has been recently released from jail after doing time for burglary and her subsequent suspicious behaviour post interview does not improve matters for her. It also seems like Jonas wanted his family out of the way that evening, suggesting a clandestine meeting. His diary written in cipher also hints at trouble when the detecting duo discover a burnt fragment in the fireplace where the word ‘fraud’ is decoded. Suspicion is hard to dispel from many of the suspects, as they all have ropey alibis to varying degrees.
Although this is a perplexing case, further puzzling events follow, culminating in further violence… and death (including a further seemingly impossible event). Added to the detecting team is newspaper reporter Alan Boyle, who becomes smitten with Madeleine at first sight and is determined to rescue her from her plight. Though he will have his work cut out as she persistently seems to be holding information back. Who is she covering for and why? Whilst this is all happening, Julian’s wife returns to the scene and it seems she has an offer Julian won’t want to refuse. Westborough is convinced that in order to catch this killer a trap or rather a series of traps need to be set, using the ciphered diary in one of them as bait. But will he become the victim of his own traps and will he ever be able to decipher the diary?
On the whole I enjoyed this story better than Poison Jasmine, as the characterisation was stronger and the plot drew me in more. The Wright family are an unusual one, although not always that likeable and in regards to Emily Wright, it does feel like some sarcasm is levelled at her through the narrator: ‘Mrs Wright continued her hysterical screaming. And Westborough wondered just why he couldn’t feel more pity for her.’ The chapters begin with quotes from Romeo and Juliet and in a way there is a pair of star crossed lovers and you’ll have to read the book to see if their relationship is doomed like the one in play. There are also allusions to other Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth when Mack refers to the blood stain in the hall as ‘that damned spot’. I think Clason does try to make this more of a fair play novel in that the reader is provided with a map of the crime scene and when the solution is revealed there are narrative comments in italics which refer the reader to specific events earlier in the novel. Furthermore, the reader is witness to Westborough’s list of 10 questions which he believes when answered will help solve the case. The killer is a satisfying choice though I did pick them early on (only to forget about them for most of the novel and then remember them again), due to an action which piqued my suspicion. The crimes themselves are quite unusual in several respects and the puzzle in this book is a good one, though I think there is more to the story than that, with complicated relationships and thematic issues such as WW2 and theories on how to deal with criminals also cropping up. Moreover, all Westborough, the amateur sleuth triumphs where the police do not, the early part of the investigation is mostly by the book, including a numbers of investigative process details, which in some Golden Age mysteries are quickly skipped over or omitted. So all in all out of the two books I have read by Clason I would recommend reading this one first.