The Canvas Dagger (1956) by Helen Reilly

Today’s read comes from another American mystery author new to me, Helen Reilly. There’s no mucking about in this story with the first line of the book getting straight to the point: ‘At 4:35 on the afternoon of October third Grant Melville, a portrait painter, fell from the fourth-floor studio of the Melville house on East Tenth Street and was instantly killed.’ It is presumed to be an accident, but Sarah Casement who was watching directly opposite the scene, from her friend’s apartment, disagrees. She is sure there was someone else there. The police are fairly sceptical, with Melville house being thoroughly locked up when they arrive on the scene and no one in the street saw anyone leave. With such a setup you might be expecting a locked room mystery, but this is not the case, as it is easy enough to see how someone could have gone out the backdoor. This is not enough for the police and the only other peculiar incident is a burglary of Melville house shortly afterwards. At this point we are given a tantalising cryptic sentence: ‘It didn’t occur to anyone then to check the paint on the canvas propped on the easel in the studio […] to see whether the paint was wet.’

Image result for the canvas dagger helen reilly

Sarah though is not happy to let things rest and she decides to apply for the job of writing Melville’s biography, as this is a book his widow wants written. Whilst she finds out little about Melville at this interview, she does find a lot of suspicious candidates applying for the job and who all seem familiar to her in some way. She is pipped to the post by Tom Gillespie in getting the job, but it seems like their paths are going to be crossing a lot and sparks certainly fly between them. Yet from the very beginning we are not sure we can trust Tom and it is not until the last page of the book that we can make any definite assumptions about him. Sarah’s quest for the truth, aside from nearly killing a friend, also leads her to take up residence in her aunt’s country abode, due to remembering Melville had a home nearby and was on friendly terms with the surrounding inhabitants, including his first wife! Unsurprisingly quite a few familiar faces also pop up. For quite a while it seems like the case is branching out into far more diverse directions than the original death, which for me was a strength of the novel, opening and closing the set of suspects at different points, before finally circling back to Melville’s death. In the interim there are very mobile corpses, an arsonist on the loose and more than one occasion when Sarah is in a spot of danger. With the state of play ever changing, as new information seems to appear, this is a fast paced and ever revolving story, which litters the readers’ path with twists and red herrings.

Like quite a few of my recent reads this has been another good one and like the Lenore Glen Offord novel I read yesterday, I think Helen Reilly has a strong handle on how to create and develop life like and engrossing characters. In addition I think Reilly dealt with the romance element of the story in a very clever manner. It does start off in a more conventional way, with Tom and Sarah exchanging the expected witty and argumentative lines, which barely conceal their interest in each other:

Gillespie: ‘Self-willed, aren’t you?’

Sarah: ‘Very’

Gillespie: ‘And obstinate and stiff-necked, and determined to have your own way in spite of hell and high water.’

Sarah: ‘The word is resolute.’

But after that I think their relationship grows and flounders in a much more lifelike pattern, with the reader unsure how it is all going to end, and Sarah’s emotional responses to the ever changing events have a great deal of verisimilitude. As with Noel Bruce in yesterday’s read, Sarah definitely has more of accidental sleuth feel, as although she starts out more like an amateur detective, once she gets away to her Aunt’s house, this aspect tends to slide. Though in the main I think she avoids becoming a full on HIBK heroine, even if she does get lost in the fog and enters seemingly deserted houses, which you know is going to have somebody up to no good in it.

Based on this first experience with Reilly one of the main things which stood out for me was how her style is very fast and full of almost dizzying reversals of events and plot tropes, yet never loses the narrative thread and the solution is definitely a surprising one and quite web like in structure. Equally another way this story links back to my latest Offord read is that both books have slippery and deceptive titles to say the least, something that I haven’t noticed in my crime fiction reading for a while. Additionally, this book is supposed to be part of a series featuring serial police detective, Inspector McKee, and he does indeed turn up half way through the book, propelling our wrong doer into much more action. Yet for me he didn’t really stand out and my attention was firmly on the Sarah and the suspects. However this didn’t really bother me too much. Overall I can warmly recommend this book and I am hoping readers with more experience of Reilly’s work can point me in the direction of other good works of hers to try next.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Hat


  1. I recently had my own first experience of Helen Reilly, which in my case was “MURDER ON ANGLER’S ISLAND” which is set during WWII and the similarities with your book, stylistically speaking, are quite evident. One half of the island is a military base, the lead character is a WAC and the setting is well realized and put to very good use. I won’t try go give a precis of the plot but it has the rapid plot reversals, the romantic sub-plot, the detailed relationships among the characters, the slight HIBK flavour and the use of foreshadowing etc. that you mention. I’m sure that you would enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read a number of Reilly’s mysteries (have them all somewhere among the vast piles of my books), and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read so far. She also had two daughters who were mystery writers: Mary McMullen and Ursula Curtiss.

    Liked by 1 person

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