Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
I’ve been looking forward to the Dean Street reprints of Molly Thynne, having first heard about them from Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp, who has also written the excellent introductions for the DSP reprints. Molly Thynne (1881-1950) wrote six mystery novels between 1928 and 1933. Aside from the one I am reviewing today the other five are:
- The Draycott Mystery (1928) (UK: The Red Dwarf)
- The Murder on the Enriqueta (1929) (US: The Strangler)
- The Case of Sir Adam Braid (1930)
- The Crime at the Noah’s Ark: A Christmas Mystery (1931)
- He Dies and Makes No Sign (1933).
The last two of these mysteries and the one I am reviewing today feature Thynne’s Greek amateur sleuth Dr Constantine (though I’m still not sure what he has a doctorate in), who is also a whizz at chess. With such a name and nationality my mind immediately flew to a novel which came out two years later by Christie – though this is probably just a coincidental similarity. Thynne has an aristocratic lineage, her second cousin once removed being a bridesmaid at the Duke of York’s (later King George VI) wedding in 1923 and was also related to the famous painter James Whistler. Her relations owned and still own the Longleat estate, famous for its safari park, which I have actually been to. At the time there were reviewers who placed her in the same high esteem as they did Crofts and Bailey (though thankfully her writing style is not the same). Whilst another reviewer in 1930 suggested that she was ‘perhaps the best woman writer of detective stories we know.’ This is certainly quite a claim considering the other female crime writers there were at the time. The dentist milieu is not one I have encountered a lot in my reading of detective fiction, except in a later novel by Christie: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), though it does seem there are a few others out there from authors such as Cornell Woolrich (‘Death Sits in the Dentist Chair’ (1934)), M. C. Beaton (Death of a Dentist (1997)) and Eric B. Olsen (Death in the Dentist’s Chair: A Steve Raymond D. D. S. Mystery (2004)).
Thynne’s mystery begins with the unfortunate Mr Cattistock having several teeth removed at Humphrey Davenport’s dental practice, in preparation for a dental plate being fitted. It is through his eyes that we first view several of the main characters in this mystery, as he recovers in the waiting room. There is Sir Richard Pomfrey, who seems to get on very well with Mrs Vallon (the widow of a theatre owner) and then there’s Lottie Miller, wife of a Hatton Garden jeweller. Our eyes, Mr Cattistock, far from gives her a glowing description:
‘She was too far, he told himself viciously, too old for her ultra-fashionable and expensive clothes, and altogether too dyed, painted and powdered. He took exception to the small, scarlet, bad tempered mouth…’
Interestingly it also seems there is some animosity between her and Pomfrey. Whilst Mrs Miller goes for her appointment, Cattistock leaves the waiting room, leaving Pomfrey and Vallon behind. Soon after this our amateur sleuth appears for his own appointment. Time drags on and the trio begin to wonder what is holding Davenport up. Constantine goes to investigate and finds that Davenport having left his consulting rooms to adjust Mrs Miller’s dentures, has now been locked out of his rooms. The room is eventually broken into only to find Mrs Miller dead, her throat slashed with a sinister and Chinese looking knife. Constantine’s friend, D I Arkwright, is called into investigate from Scotland Yard and his attention begins with those who had been in the waiting room. Suspicion is distributed evenly among the characters (excepting Constantine). Cattistock for example has completely disappeared, not having returned to his hotel, whilst Sir Pomfrey, who seems to have had some kind of past with Mrs Miller, is certainly making himself look suspicious, especially considering he went out to make a phone call during the critical time period. Suspicion then widens out towards Mrs Miller’s own husband who she did not get on well with and who has a dubious past having arrived from Cape Town in 1926 after having been arrested for receiving stolen goods, only to be released due to lack of evidence. There is also the suggestion that robbery may have been the motive as one of the jewels she was wearing has gone missing. If the mystery didn’t seem complex enough, Thynne throws into the mix another murder, of another woman later that day, bearing the same type of wound from a remarkably similar weapon. But who is she? Are the crimes connected? And why is Mr Miller more frightened than grief stricken?
Being new to Thynne’s work, I was interested to see how she used the trope of the amateur sleuth. Doctor Constantine in some ways reminded me of other fictional sleuths. His prowess at chess made me think of Jacques Futrelle’s Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, whilst his pushing aside of emotional responses reminded me of the Holmes tradition:
‘The passionate desire to know, stronger than any idle curiosity, that had lured him down so many odd bye-paths in the course of his life and had kept him young and full of zest in spite of his yeas, had asserted itself, and in contemplating Davenport’s reactions to the shock, he had insensibly shaken himself free from the mists of pity and disgust that had obscured his vision. He stepped back from the body and took the scene in, in detail, for the first time.’
Furthermore, like a plethora of other sleuths Constantine prefers to look at crimes as puzzles as he says himself that, ‘I love a puzzle of any kind, and, for my own peace of mind, I find it pleasanter to disregard what the newspapers call ‘the human interest’ and approach the thing as I would a chess problem.’ Although I don’t think Thynne tries to make him into a super sleuth and does reveal a more vulnerable side to him: ‘The mask had dropped from his face now and he looked an old man, tired and apprehensive. His usual clarity of vision had deserted him and his mind was fumbling.’ Moreover, his is not shown to be aloof as throughout the investigation he strives to prove the innocence of his friend, a devotion which doesn’t always bring out the best in him when dealing with Arkwright. On the whole I would say Constantine is an engaging character, but I think I would need to read more of his cases in order to get a firmer grasp of his personality, before I could warm to him like I do with Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey. Furthermore, unlike some detective novels which include both a police sleuth and an amateur one, Thynne has both detective figures pull their weight, with pertinent information for the case coming from both quarters. This had an effective balance and gave the plot greater variety.
Now to the solution, as the novel progresses various avenues of investigation are systematically closed down and with the limited ones available I did begin to wonder whether it would simply be a case of proving or disproving rather alibis. However, Thynne impressed me in how she created a complex and elaborate solution, with an in depth back story, making you reassess certain characters. Initially I did feel dubious about the solution, thinking maybe it was whipped out of the proverbial hat slightly, but this anxiety was allayed by Thynne as she unfolds more and more of the solution, which does fit the evidence of the case. The only thing I think I would have preferred is if the reader was kept a little more in the loop with what Constantine does and why, as near the end of the story before the revelation of the solution, I feel we the readers are kept a little in the dark. Though on reflection I don’t think the story is particularly marred by this.
All in all I would definitely recommend giving Thynne a go, as she does pose an intriguing mystery with every day and more exotic elements. Her narrative style flows well and isn’t littered with dense description or prose, but nor is it so sparse that you feel like something is missing. Constantine and Arkwright are an engaging duo I would like to read more of and there is of the course her three non-serial novels to sample as well.