Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
The full name of the author under review today, is Ronald Arthur Vennor Morris (1877-1943) – you can see why he shortened it! Morris only wrote the one mystery novel and it is suggested that this was because of rivalry with his younger brother, Kenneth, who was quite a successful science fiction writer. Both brothers joined a theosophical society (though in different branches).
The Lyttleton Case (1922), begins with the disappearance of widower, James Lyttleton, who is a senior partner of a finance firm, where he worked alongside his cousin Horace. James resides with his daughter Doris, who has recently become engaged to Basil Dawson, a newspaper writer. It is these two characters who raise the alarm. James disappears one day after receiving a troubling letter at breakfast. Telegrams are forthcoming to Doris explaining James’ urgent need to travel first to Liverpool and then New York. However it soon becomes apparent to Doris and her beau that it was not James who made the journey. The narrative though does not remain with these two characters as other events are afoot, namely a body found in a river near Hillborough. The corpse died a natural death but its location is the inexplicable part and initially it seems like Chief Inspector James Candlish will have to leave the case unresolved, as he moves onto James’ vanishing act. However as the story progresses both cases intermingle and further criminal acts are forthcoming as the guilty party attempt to stave off their arrest.
The style of this book is an odd one and I don’t mean this in a negative way. On the one hand it can be said that this plot definitely doesn’t hang around, getting straight to the point throughout, but on the other hand I wouldn’t say the narrative style itself becomes merely functionary or bland – in fact Morris has quite a flair for floridity at times. It is in this floridness which something else odd arises too and that is with how the characters are often setup. In a way the characters are often peculiarly balanced possessing certain character traits, yet not incurring the consequences of them. Doris is a prime example of this. For instance it is said that:
‘she had intellectual and artistic tastes; read Wells and Shaw; was a member of the Fabian society and the Arts League of Service; with all these eccentricities, however, she could not be regarded as a crank, for she fully appreciated the motor-car, servants, generous dress allowance, and other good things that resulted from her father’s activities in the City.’
Equally despite this wealthy background she is also said to be democratic with those less well off. Maybe balanced is the wrong word, perhaps it is more a case of fence sitting or having your cake and eating it. Either way this sort of pattern emerges with different characters throughout the story and it is not something I have hugely noticed in other reads. Given the wealthy background of the main characters it was also a little unusual when Morris interjects a character, a writer named Burton James, as a satiric voice on wealth and the upper classes. The novel’s overall attitude towards money is certainly a complex one.
Returning to the characters themselves, I found Doris a bit of a drip, though she does get her moment, (having of course fallen straight into a trap earlier on). However the other main characters are well created and Candlish is a likeable detective to follow. Although to be fair Candlish is only one cog in the machine for solving this case, as pieces of the puzzle come from varying sources, leading almost to a medley of investigators. The mystery itself is a sneaky one, as half way through the book I was fairly sure I had sussed it all out and in some respects I had, but in quite a few significant ways I got it completely wrong. Morris’ text is one which gives the illusion of looking seemingly simple but is actually more complicated than it seems. Furthermore, there was definitely one surprise that I didn’t see coming and certainly increased my reading rate by a rapid few knots to figure out what had happened. Overall this was an entertaining read and I can see why it did well when it was originally published, going through a number of editions.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Hand Holding Weapon