Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Shadowy Figure
Rich at his blog Past Offences runs a monthly Crimes of the Century Challenge and this month’s chosen year is 1937, so I decided to review Cyril Hare’s first Inspector Mallett novel, Tenant for Death (1937). The opening chapters in this story, in contrast to my previous read, offer the reader a lot of plot threads and characters to grasp a hold of. We have a newspaper vendor noticing the unusual fact of local resident, Colin James, bringing a guest home for the first time since he began his tenancy. It is through the newspaper vendor that we also see James abruptly leave his property some time later, making even the most casual of mystery readers prick their ears up. We also have the disappearance of the financier Lionel Ballantine, whose business is soon to go under due to malpractice. There is also his nervy and edgy secretary Hector Du Pine, yet he is far from being a put upon or weak underling. There is a feeling of something distinctly sinister about him. A blast from Ballantine’s past also appears early on in the story, with John Fanshawe having been recently released from jail for fraud, a fraud which caused extensive ruin to many, all except Ballantine who may well have been involved. Young love also has its place in the opening sequence, with Susan and Frank wondering when they will have enough money to marry on. Frank hints a solution to their problems will arrive soon, though Susan can elicit no further information on how this money will be obtained. All of these threads combine when the Ballantine’s body is found in James’ home. With James’ no longer in residence, he is Inspector Mallett’s prime suspect and Hare creates a great deal of pleasing mystification over this character, as well as with others involved in the case, such as Frank, who unsurprisingly are all acting suspiciously one way or another. However Inspector Mallett is no infallible sleuth and events as the end of the story comes near do fall out of his grasp and control.
This is a mystery with a well-crafted and complex puzzle, which I think will give readers plenty of clues to get their teeth into, with new information giving further food for thought. Clues start very early on and there were quite a few that passed me by. There is a steady trickle of surprising event and information which helps maintain the pace on the whole. There is perhaps a slight reliance on a last minute piece of information, in order to get the reader thinking in the right direction and getting the case to draw to a close, but I think subsequent evidence which refers back to much earlier clues, means this didn’t feel like a swizz.
By and large Hare’s characterisation is strong and well executed. Even characters with small parts are memorable and nuanced. You get a real sense of who they are and I enjoyed following Inspector Mallett’s investigation. In later novels Mallett works with an amateur sleuth named Francis Pettigrew, but in this one I actually rather liked not having Pettigrew’s presence. In some ways I think it freed Mallett up and gave him more of the limelight. Equally the absence of Pettigrew meant there wasn’t any legal twist in this mystery. Hare uses the trope of the murdered financier to good effect in this story and he recreates the various milieus involved in his book effectively, making them seem real and distinct from one another. The ending wasn’t quite what I predicted and I think it was a little rushed, though it did show Inspector Mallett in a different light. In particular one character’s response to a dramatic event seemed oddly cool to say the least and didn’t really fit. I think if the ending had been a few pages longer these little inconsistencies could have been ironed out.
Despite being a novel published near the end of the 1930s, there isn’t any mention of Fascism or any fears of an impending war with Germany. Communism makes a brief foray into the novel in the form of comic skit between a lorry driver and one of the suspects. However, through a rather reactionary character, comments are made on India and in particular on Mahatma Gandhi who the character believes is ‘the biggest enemy our Indian Empire has got.’ Suffice to say he isn’t impressed that his daughter has named her dog after him.
So all in all I think this was a strong first outing for Hare, balancing plot and character needs and due to the lack of legal twists, this is a mystery I think readers will feel they have more of a chance of solving. Hare has an entertaining writing style and he is mostly good when it comes to pacing in the story. In several respects I think Hare’s mystery will keep readers guessing until the end.