Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Today on the blog I am continuing my sampling of Thynne’s mystery fiction, which the DSP have recently reprinted, and this one also comes from the year chosen for Rich’s Crimes of the Century Challenge at Past Offences. This is also my first experience of reading a non-Dr Constantine mystery by Thynne.
The story begins one early winter evening. Sir Adam Braid a successful artist, is deciding how best to respond to a request for money from his granddaughter, Jill. Things do not look favourable for her. Braid is soon left alone in his flat as his manservant leaves for his usual jaunt to the pub. Yet within the next 40 minutes, Braid will lose his life, murdered. However, the case is far from simple, primarily due to the high number of people who seem to have visited his flat within the crucial time. A petty thief, an irate woman, a mystery man – even a man wanting a stamp! There is also the difficulty of deciding when Braid actually died, with different testimonies suggesting different times. There is an obvious suspect in Jill, yet she is a suspect Chief Detective Inspector Fenn has known since she was child and is therefore reluctant to arrest her, preferring to look for another likely suspect, a task which initially seems quite a forlorn one due to the amount of circumstantial evidence against her. However, many other suspects appear ranging from confidence tricksters, wanted criminals and a very frightened looking manservant. To aid him in his task, Fenn also has his friend, Doctor Gilroy, a scientist researching bacteria, to help him on the case. Though they’ll have to be careful as someone out there is more than happy to use violence to prevent being identified.
Although not hugely focused on as a person, Sir Adam Braid, did interest me as a character, as it felt like he was not just your typical tyrannical elderly figure and I have to say I did feel some sympathy for him when he gets a letter asking him to advance money that Jill expects from his will. And I think it is this moment which makes me not entirely warm to Jill, though of course as our novel’s heroine, she is doted on in different ways by Fenn and Gilroy. However, I think the description which gave me a little sympathy to Braid was this one where it is suggested that he could be compared ‘to an old, ill-conditioned, shaggy terrier, his few remaining teeth bared to bite.’ This sums him up quite well as he doesn’t always have the best of tempers but there is a sense that the harm he can do is quite minimal and there is a certain lovability to a scruffy dog character.
Within the story, Miss Webb, the spinster sister of one of the people who finds Braid’s body, provides Fenn with a number of important pieces of information. Yet I think Fenn’s attitude towards her did irk me a little, mainly due to its’ hypocriticalness. Despite the value of the information she gives, Fenn never lets go of his initial stereotyped view of her and demarcates her as simply a gossipy nosey woman full of imagination and is fair game for ridicule, a notion Gilroy shares when he quips that she ‘ought to be in the force.’ It is not that I am unused to spinster characters getting a raw deal, even Miss Marple, whose first novel appearance occurred in the same year as this experiences other people’s erroneous assumptions of elderly women. It is the fact that Fenn is much more welcoming and valuing of other people’s gossip, despite it being inaccurate or a repetition of Miss Webb’s. When encouraging Gilroy to listen to his charwoman’s gossip, Fenn says ‘local gossip isn’t to be despised,’ and for me this felt a bit of a cheek considering all the unfair assertions he laid at Miss Webb’s door when she passed on the information she knew. Though to be fair I do think she partially gets the last laugh in this case. Perhaps in some ways this is an interesting novel to read for the prejudices it contains, (in very brief snippets in most cases), such as the assumed honesty of WW1 veterans, the unreliability of the elderly middle class spinsters, (the most pervasive prejudice), or the criminality of marginalised social groups. If the characterisation had been a little more in depth this may have been ameliorated, but there is a feeling at the end that the final solution is a trifle convenient. It is not implausible, in fact the solution is very well supported by the evidence, I just think the backdrop against which it is cast may make it less satisfying in its handiness for certain characters.
However, this novel has a very strong central mystery, probably the strongest out of the three I have read by Thynne and there is plenty of evidence for the readers to grapple with and evaluate, making it a better read, as it gives you more of a chance to solve the mystery. There is probably one aspect of the case seasoned crime readers will pick up on quite quickly, an aspect which holds Fenn up a lot until nearer the end of the novel. However, working that out early on doesn’t mean the identity of the killer is easy to discover. I think readers for whom the puzzle is paramount would probably enjoy reading this one the most out of the three I have tried. The few qualms I had with the characters/the convenience of the solution affected my final rating slightly, but these are subjective issues which may affect other readers to a lesser degree than myself.
Death in the Dentist’s Chair (1932)
The Crime at the Noah’s Ark (1931)