Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip)
Whilst Agatha Christie put her pharmaceutical experience to good use in her mysteries and Dorothy L Sayers used her career in advertising for one of her novels’ setting, it can equally be said that Tyline Perry (1897-1978) in her debut novel used regional experiences where she lived, to construct her fiendish mystery. During the time she spent in Colorado there were many coal mining fatalities brought on by incidences such as explosions and roof collapses. The devastation these occasions brought often produced workplace tension between workers and mine owners and all of this is brought to life in the opening chapter of The Owner Lies Dead (1930). As first chapters go this one definitely ranks with the best of them. An explosion has occurred within what the locals call the Haunted Mine, owned by Matthew North. Twelve hours into the rescue and things are looking far from good. Some miners have been retrieved, not all of them alive and conditions down below are making further rescue attempts too hazardous. Yet North’s eldest nephew, Tony, is not prepared to rest until the remaining miners have been found and he descends alone once more. Time passes and the worst is feared and no money will persuade anyone to go down there. Five weeks later the mine is safe enough to enter again and Tony’s body is found. Yet the first chapter closes with this tantalising information: Tony was killed by a bullet, shot from behind. No one went in after him and the miners he was going to rescue were already dead by this point. So who did it?
The remainder of the novel is from Tony’s youngest sibling, Henry. The next chapters are episodic in nature covering their childhood up to recent times. All of these episodes build up a picture of what Tony and his brothers were like, (the remaining brother being Rush). They also show the blossoming romance of Tony and their neighbour Regina and also how it disintegrates. There is the rising threat of Patrick Brace, who is determined to wreck vengeance on Tony and his family, believing Tony’s uncle swindled his father over ownership of the mine. His revenge seems nearly achieved when he weds Regina. Whilst in a Victorian novel these chapters would probably take up a large proportion of the book, Perry keeps them in check and chronologically the story soon reaches the few days prior to the mine explosion. There is also plenty of romantic jealousy, threats and even stolen money thrown into the mix.
The story charts Henry’s progress as he tries to unravel what has happened, as soon after the explosion various incidences and pieces of evidence lead him and his brother to believe not all is what it seems. But what has taken place? This uncertainty leads to both brothers suppressing what they know, wondering if the truth will hurt and scandalise those they love dearly and in Henry’s case wondering how much he can trust Rush, as his behaviour is far from unsuspicious.
What made this such a good read is the way it balances being a character driven story with also being a story with quite an intricate central mystery to solve. The tables are often turned on the reader as new information comes to light and the reader is forced to reinterpret the evidence. The first chapter sets the readers up with a tantalising foreshadowing of events to come but when those events turn up for the second time the reader is already beginning to look at them differently due to the new information they have learnt on the way.
One of the biggest strengths of the novel is the way it gets you to care about the characters so quickly and you become invested in what happens to them very early on. Consequently when the story focuses on the how of the crime, the various technicalities, impossibilities and logistical issues are much more interesting because you have gotten to know the characters first. The final solution is definitely satisfying. The reader may pick up some ideas about the solution slightly ahead of it being revealed but with Perry’s writing style nothing seems certain. It does not surprise me that this book got such good reviews when it was originally published, (which can be found in Curtis Evans’ introduction), as reviewers often commented on Perry’s inventiveness and how she is able to make ‘something of a “locked room” or “impossible crime” situation out of a mine explosion.’ A reviewer for the Spectator said that the novel ‘boasted a superlative puzzle’ but was also a ‘first class thriller, which is also a novel full of human interest and sound psychology.’ When I read the word ‘thriller’ I was a little concerned, however having now read the book I find that it is not really a conventional thriller. It is more that Henry’s finding out of information is less structured and formal than it would in a more traditional detective story. Equally police detectives do not enter the story into quite late on, again something which could make it more thriller like.
I also feel I should mention another strength of Perry’s work, which is her writing style, as it has a real quality to it, creating mental pictures for the reader in a few simple words, such as describing some of the rescue workers remerging from the mine as, ‘three blackened figures, like strange goblins.’ Equally I loved how in her opening paragraph she almost pitches nature against human endeavour, showing how small it is in comparison to the surrounding landscape:
‘the hill rose gaunt and gloomy against the stars, dwarfing the crude buildings of the mine […] looked like a toy village […] the group of people, huddled about the mine shaft, seemed pitifully helpless, puny humans at grips with nature.’
For me Perry is a multi-talented writer in that her writing skills cover a broad range of areas.
It won’t surprise you to hear that I heartily recommend this book and I am only sorry that Perry only definitely wrote one more mystery novel, (mostly writing short stories for the pulps), called The Never Summer Mystery (1932). Her obituary claims she wrote a further two novels, but Curtis has not been able to determine if this is a truthful or not. So Perry leaves us with another intriguing mystery! This story is action packed, suitably puzzling and has characters you get readily engage with and all of this is set within the unusual setting of a mining community. What’s not to love?