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.
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.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Maid