The House of the Arrow (1924) by A. E. W. Mason

A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is one of those authors which I have known about, even read about in books and blog reviews, but never actually read – until now that is of course. Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was a politician and writer who bridged Victorian and golden age crime writing, though he did also write adventure/romance stories as well. Many of his mystery novels were standalone ones, but there were 6 which featured his French detective, Inspector Hanaud, who is remembered for how he influenced Christie’s creation of Hercule Poirot. His most famous appearance is in the novel The Villa Rose (1910) and Mason had many of his works adapted for film. A few years prior to Hanaud’s debut the Sherlock Holmes stories were recommenced, after Doyle had chucked him precipitously over a fall and it is suggested in light of this, that Mason tried to make his sleuth quite opposite in manner, appearance and behaviour, though he too had a reoccurring Watson figure, Julius Ricardo, a retired banker. Although Ricardo is not in this particular story, the role of Watson going to another. I wouldn’t say Mason is a forgotten writer, but equally I wouldn’t say he is read as much as some of his contemporaries. The fact his work is bridging two periods of writing could be a possible contributory factor, as could the fact he had only 6 serial novels for Hanaud. Equally his non-mystery work may also have diluted his profile as a mystery writer. In a fact given the rise in vintage mystery authors being reprinted I am slightly surprised that Mason hasn’t been selected for reprint yet.

The story begins at an English solicitor’s offices. Mr Haslitt is in charge of French based clients and receives a letter from the home of one of his clients, the widow Jeanne-Marie Harlowe, who has not been well. But it is not from her, but a man named Boris Waberski, Harlowe’s brother in law. He wants money, on account of what he expects to receive when she dies. He envisages piles of money when in fact he gets nothing, as all the money goes to Mrs Harlowe’s husband’s niece, Betty. Three weeks later Mrs Harlowe is dead and Waberski is far from impressed by the will and his second letter contains veiled blackmailing tones, threatening to make things unpleasant. This he certainly does as soon afterwards he accuses Betty of murdering Mrs Harlowe, an accusation the police are taking seriously. Concerned for Betty, Haslitt sends young Jim Frobisher of the firm to visit. Yet this mystery is far from simple. Has murder been committed? Is Waberski correct in his accusations or just out for what he can get? How trustworthy is Betty’s companion, Ann Upcott? What is the connection between her and Jim? Is Betty as innocent as she seems? Thankfully Inspector Hanaud is called in from Paris to solve the case, which he is using as a cover for another case he wishes to solve in the area, of a vicious poison pen letter writer who has caused a number of deaths.

Overall Thoughts

Having now read the book I can definitely confirm the feeling of this work being one which bridges Victorian and 1920s mystery fiction. Waberski has a Victorian melodrama quality to him and you can almost envisage him twirling his moustache ends. The female characters are treated in a more damsel in distress manner and as in keeping with earlier detective fiction the investigation is forwarded and viewed by a lawyer figure, who is there on behalf of a client. Equally the solution, murder method, crime setup and the revelation of the solution all have a Victorian literature atmosphere and feel to them, particularly in the way the plot becomes a bit more over the top as the story unfolds. You could say these provide unnecessary and rather unfair aspects to the story, but I think Mason just about gets away with it. It is predominantly in the character of Hanaud that we get a more golden age flavour to the story and his approach to police work.

Hanaud is an unusual detecting character; complex and hard to pin down. He has swift mood changes and like Frobisher we can find it difficult to discern how genuine they are: ‘He hardly knew for the moment whether he was upon his head or his heels. A minute ago Hanaud had been the grave agent of Justice; without a hint he had leaped to buffoonery, and with a huge enjoyment. He had become half urchin, half clown. Jim could almost hear the bells of his cap still tinkling.’ Though I think readers soon twig how Hanaud uses his flair for drama and humour to disarm the suspects he is questioning. When reading the book I often thought at times, that such and such was just like Poirot or Poirot is described like that. But of course it should be the other way round – Poirot is just like Hanaud in such and such a way. So in that vein I will say that Poirot has the same kind of self-assurance of Hanaud and Captain Hastings echoes, when talking about Poirot, the slightly peeved comments that Frobisher makes of Hanaud: ‘Monsieur Hanaud might be a thorough little Mr. Know-All…’ Like Hanaud, Poirot sometimes gets English idioms slightly wrong and both of them get called Mountebanks. The relationship between Hanaud and Frobisher is amusing to read as I enjoyed how Hanaud sometimes needles Frobisher into acting in an overly ‘proper’ and stiff fashion.

Yet Hanaud is not the only character of interest as Mason writes his characters in such a way that they could be concealing everything or nothing at all. Mason is very good at fooling his readers where his characters are concerned. By and large the story is well-paced. It is a long story but only takes place over a matter of days. The tale twists and turns frequently, meaning you never know what will happen next. Just when trouble seems to have been abated, more surfaces. However the pacing does suffer in the final third, which is a shame, as like earlier mystery novels the ending runs on unnecessarily for quite a long time. Writers more firmly in the GAD camp would probably have tightened that final third up a lot more and made the build up to the revelation of the solution and the explanation of the solution much more succinct. I am very glad I tried this book and despite the less than perfect end I will definitely try to seek out more of his work as there is a lot to enjoy in his work and would recommend others give him a go too.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Maid


  1. “In a fact given the rise in vintage mystery authors being reprinted I am slightly surprised that Mason hasn’t been selected for reprint yet.”

    Most of Mason’s work is available via Project Gutenberg as free e-books. Your post actually reminded me that I downloaded some of his mysteries a while ago, but have never gotten along to reading them. I’ve only read “At The Villa Rose” which I own a physical copy of.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Actually it looks like there have been a few reprints of some of his adventure and detective novel by House of Stratus a couple of years ago They’re available on Amazon, though not super cheaply, in paperback.
        I have read this one but don’t remember it well at all. You’ve rekindled my interest though. The Poirot links are especially fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The 3 main Hanaud novels (At the Villa Rose, Prisoner in the Opal) are big favorites of mine. The detection is pretty good, the humor is good, and the writing much better than almost all standard GAD fare. Also look for CHB Kitchin’s Death of My Aunt, which I think you’d like a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A translation of “The house of the arrow” was serialized in 8 episodes in the Sunday magazine of a Bengali newspaper in Calcutta in 1968. I can recall how mom and I would dive to snatch the paper from the deliveryman. The story was set in a central Indian town and the character names were all changed to Indian. After the 5th episode, the newspaper, accused of plagiarism, published an acknowledgement.

    It came close upon my discovery of Sherlock Holmes in Bengali translation.

    Forty years ago these pleasures were matched by the excitement when I found the original – a Modern Library giant (“Three famous murder novels”) in pristine condition – in a used book store on 18th street, a stone’s throw from the 5th Ave Banes and Noble.

    Liked by 1 person

      • In the 1960s, “The house of the arrow”, was available in the US as one of the three novels in the Modern Library giant volume “Three famous murder novels”. “Before the fact” and “Trent’s last case” were the other two.

        In the 1980s, “The house of the arrow” was reprinted by Avalon and it was used in a detective novel class offered by the English department of my college.

        There is a “The house of the arrow” film (1953) available on youtube.

        Liked by 1 person

    • To be honest I am not sure. There are no dates given in the early chapters. I don’t remember it mentioning the war, and you would expect 1924’s France to still show the consequences of the conflict, but just because it is not mentioned, does not necessarily mean it was not set contemporary.


      • I think that the story is set in 1912 or 1913. There is no reference to WW1 in the paragraph where Mason describes Jim Frobisher. Had he fought in that war, it would have been mentioned. WW1 was not fought near Dijon.

        I wish I knew more about motorcycles and their sidecars of that period. That knowledge would have helped.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.