Source: Review Copy (Mad Sheep)
In the past I have read quite a few Victorian detective stories and equally nowadays I read a sizeable amount of golden age detective fiction. Yet I have to admit I have not been so good at trying authors who belong to the period in between. Louis Tracy is one such author and until the Mad Sheep’s reprinting I had not heard of this writer before. Tracy (1863-1928) didn’t publish his first detective novel until 1901, with The Strange Disappearance of Lady Delia, starring his first serial detective and Watson figure, Inspector Winter and Reginald Brett. These two would appear together in two more mysteries. However in 1910 Tracy created another serial character to join Inspector Winter, who is another detective named Inspector Furneaux. They would go on to star in 17 more novels. They are a detecting double act of opposites, mentally and physically. Winter is a largely built man who is described as a ‘fighter,’ whilst Furneaux is said to be ‘a diminutive, dapper little man, who might be either a fashionable jockey or a popular comedian of the song-and-dance type’ and as a ‘thinking machine.’
In this story though it seems as though Inspector Winter has had a promotion or two as he is now a Superintendent. The story begins with an amusingly entitled first chapter: What the Butler Found. After a night of hard drinking the butler in question goes to see how his employer and his guests, (who are all part of the Ace Club) have fared. Initially he thinks they are dead drunk, oblivious to the world, yet it soon becomes apparent that whilst the guests are all in a state of forced unconsciousness, his employer, Anthony Coleman, and his goldfish, are decidedly dead. What have they been drinking? By chance Captain Stuart becomes embroiled in the case and is quickly taken on by Winter and Furneaux, as a useful non-police ally, a partial Watson figure you might say, and he gets the unenviable task of informing Coleman’s fiancée, (Mary Dixon), of his death. Yet her response is hard to decipher. Is her grief sincere? Furneaux is soon convinced that one of the 12 committed the deed, but which one was it? This is a case that begins in London but half way through the book shifts to the seemingly idyllic Lake District, where it becomes a team effort to unveil the killer…
The book starts well and I really enjoyed the initial setup of the crime, which has certain out of the ordinary features. The cast of characters is also a strong one, with Winter and Furneaux being immediately engaging and entertaining. Given all of their differences they often bandy insults and have light hearted quarrels, which can seem trite in some books, but really work in this one:
‘How am I to force my way into three West End mansions unless I have your inert and obese mass behind me?’
‘Usually I tell a crowd that Furneaux is a violent lunatic; they always believe me.’
Captain Stuart, though a bit more archetypal is a likeable lead and Mary does have her gutsy moments.
When the story shifts its setting to the Lake District, the style of the tale changes to more of a light thriller. Looking back at this shift I think it was probably necessary for the type of crime being investigated, as a narrative which has back to back interviews with the 12 suspects would have been somewhat tedious. Instead the narrative becomes a case of collecting evidence against a certain individual and provoking them into incriminating themselves. This has some farfetched elements but in the main is well handled and written well.
So after my first encounter with Tracy I can say I like his writing style and characters for definite, but I would like to see how he handles a different type of murder investigation, before making any firm opinions as to his abilities to create and unravel puzzles. Lucky for me my next read is The Post Master’s Daughter, so hopefully that will help resolve that conundrum.