Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Christmas Tree
This is my second read by the recently reprinted Molly Thynne and unlike my own surroundings, of rare Northern English sunshine, the setting in this novel is decidedly snowy, to the extent that a number of people end up marooned in a remote inn, The Noah’s Ark. Angus Stuart, a writer who has recently published a bestseller, is the character through which the events of the book are filtered, though not written in the first person. He kindly assists two old ladies to the inn, sisters named Amy and Connie Adderley, the latter of which has an ear trumpet which leads to some mild comedy in the story. Other guests to the inn include the very dapper Felix Melnotte a professional dancer, Trevor an account’s clerk, Major Carew who becomes increasingly drunk, Lord Romsey and his grown up children Geoffrey, Victoria and Angela; the overdressed pseudo American Mrs Van Dolen who is bestudded with jewels, her secretary Miss Hamilton, Soames a commercial traveller and Mrs Orkney Cloude, a powerfully attractive woman who pales at the sight of one of the other guests. Of course there is also our amateur sleuth, Doctor Constantine, who arrives unnamed but who is easy to distinguish by his impressive head of hair.
Unusual events begin from the very first night, with Amy Adderley spying a masked man. There is also disquietude between the guests though principally aimed at the Major, whose drinking leads to him misbehaving around the female guests. It is not surprising when he is manhandled back to his room and locked in. Yet in the middle of the night guests are roused as a rope is seen by Dr Constantine hanging from the Major’s window. Has he attempted to escape? A search ensues which is hampered by the fact that the key to the Major’s room has gone missing. It is during this search that Mrs Van Doren announces that her emerald girdle has been stolen. When the Major’s room is finally broken in to the likelihood of him being the thief disappears, as he has been murdered in his bed with a blunt instrument. Now for many the case as it is would seem enough for anyone to sleuth, but Thynne ups the ante for her amateur and police detectives as it soon becomes apparent in the subsequent days there is more than one guilty party and they all seem intent on Mrs Van Doren’s emerald girdle. The problem is where has it got to? Thankfully Dr Constantine is there to unravel the mystery.
In the first Thynne novel I read, Death in the Dentist’s Chair (1932) the crimes themselves were quite simple though the final solution was complex. In contrast in this novel the logistics involved in the crimes are the more complex and the motivations for them are simple. Thynne is good at depicting the group psychology engagingly and I think she handles her large cast of characters well, giving each one the right amount of attention. At one point in the narrative Thynne writes that ‘Stuart had the novelist’s trick of summing up and pigeon-holing people according to their various types…’ and in a way Thynne does do that a little with her own characters. But beware! Not everyone is what they seem. Her characters are well-drawn, though I feel Felix Melnotte is painted a little too stereotypically. At times I did wonder whether Doctor Constantine kept his ideas a little too much to himself, which is intimated in lines such as this: ‘but I must solve my chess problem in my own way, and though I’ve mastered one move, I’ve still got the others to deal with.’ However once the guilty parties are revealed (one of which is particularly satisfying, surprising and amusing), you can in retrospect see how you could have spotted it yourself, though it is perhaps not the easiest case to solve. Furthermore, near the end of the story, there is the issue of proving guilt as well, though this problem is soon solved. Yet I think the way it is solved, although understandable in terms of human behaviour, is perhaps not as satisfying for the reader. For those looking for a new seasonal mystery this winter, Thynne’s novel certainly fits the bill, with the atmospheric snow and burglar hunts aplenty most nights. It’ll make you glad you’re not going away this Christmas!