Ruby Constance Ashby (1899-1966), is an author I recently discovered, having come across the name and this particular story in passing. Thankfully I was lucky enough to secure a reasonably priced copy, because as with many obscure authors her work is not cheap to buy, in the main, though not going for completely ridiculous prices either. A quick survey of the gadetection page on Ashby shows that she wrote detective, romance and children’s novels. Of her work only 8 make up the first of these genres. According to John at Pretty Sinister Books, today’s title under review, (her 4th mystery novel), ‘is in imitation of Agatha Christie’ and John also notes how Ashby’s mysteries ‘followed the style of the fair play detective novels of her British counterparts but often included supernatural and bizarre elements that most often were rationalised in the denouement.’ Having now the read the book I can see where John is coming from in his first assertion. There are echoes of Christie’s type of cluing and misdirection, her manner of setting up mysteries and I would say they both are good at providing meaningful characterisation without requiring pages and pages of description. When it comes to John’s second assertion though, I don’t think today’s read is an example of such a book, as it is distinctly lacking in the supernatural department (not that that bothers me so much).
Death on Tiptoe (1931), is at a Welsh castle named Cleys. It has recently been bought by Sir Harry Stacey and his wife, Undine. On bumping into Lionel West, (who is forbidden to work by his doctor – though we never find out why), Harry suggests he joins their current party at the castle. Also staying there, amongst others, is Harry’s brother Major Edward, Cecil Sabelle (relation of the last owner of the castle), an artist called Basil Crown, who is loved by both vicar’s daughter Pandora Hyde and Yorkshire heiress Rene Fullerton. You can guess which one he goes for. As Lewis and Harry drive to the castle the reader is privy to the various undercurrents within the party. Romantic jealousy and rivalry and unearthed past secrets seethe just beneath the surface and all of these unpleasant threads lead back to Undine. So no reader is surprised when events take a sinister turn for the worst during a night time game of hide and seek…
I hope I’m not doing Ashby an injustice when I say that she is a more creative and surprising writer in the Georgette Heyer mould. The milieus they use are the same, along with the build up to the crime and the lack of personal life to the police figures. Yet for all that I find Ashby less predictable than Heyer. Murder during moments of entertainment is quite a niche milieu, with the examples springing to mind being Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly (1956) and Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934). Yet what I enjoyed in this book was the hide and seek scene showed a real flair for inventiveness, providing a high chill factor, and the events following the murder do not tread an entirely expected path. I think some of Ashby’s attempts at misdirection are a little clumsy or perhaps just a tad too blatant, but having said that I did not guess the killer. As I wrote earlier John says that Ashby ‘followed the style of the fair play detective novels of her British counterparts,’ but I would have to say that there is one definite instance of Ashby withholding an important piece of evidence. The ending was not horrific or dull or too long winded, but I did feel the puzzle element needed to be strengthened/tightened up in this final section, as the revealing of the killer was a bit thrillish.
The characterisation as I implied above was strong though and I liked how Lewis West echoed Robert Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) – though I think Ashby gives this role an inventive twist. Ashby succinctly reveals to the reader the types of people the suspects are and the difficulties they are facing. By and large the pace was also well maintained. I don’t think this is top drawer Ashby, but it was still a very enjoyable tale and it has definitely given me the motivation to try her work again, if it happens to come my way.
Rating: 4.25/5 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Castle
Ashby’s Mystery Bibliography:
- The Moorland Man (1926)
- The Tale of Rowan Christie (1927)
- Beauty Bewitched (1928)
- Death on Tiptoe (1931)
- Plot Against A Widow (1932)
- He Arrived at Dusk (1933)
- One Way Traffic (1933)
- Out Went the Taper (1934)