A Sneaky Impossible Crime in Carolyn Wells’ The White Alley (1915)

When it comes to finding out the best and worst locked room and impossible crime mysteries, two of the bloggers which come to mind are JJ at The Invisible Event and Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time. Their obsessions with such stories has led them high and low and into books by familiar and unfamiliar authors. I imagine it is quite a challenge to find such a mystery that they have not read. And purely by accident I wonder if I have done just that… [and yes I am prepared for the eventuality where they both reply to this post with a rebuttal of such an assertion. However I have my fingers and toes crossed that this might not be the case.] The mechanics of the crimes, in the mystery novels that I read, are not the upper most things I look for in a great story, so my interest in locked rooms and impossible crimes is far more sporadic and casual. Yet what I liked about this one is the sheer understated nature of it, to the extent that you soon begin to forget about it, until it returns with a vengeance in the final fifth of the novel. However I am getting ahead of myself…

The book opens with a house party hosted by the middle aged and rich Justin Arnold. The party is in honour of his much younger fiancée Dorothy Duncan, who is a self-acknowledged flirt. Very soon into the novel you begin to wonder how these two could have ever formed a relationship, she is energetic and lacking in propriety, whilst Arnold is restrained and cold to the extreme. Yet it soon seems like each person in the relationship plans to change the other in order to get the partner they want. Arnold is determined ‘to make her over,’ into the perfect lady, whilst Dorothy is firm in her resolve to make him realise that he cannot boss her about. Of course this is all doomed to failure and their interactions become interestingly problematic as Arnold’s jealousy boils over. Though in fairness to him she does push things to the limits. It doesn’t help that two of her ardent and maddeningly passionate admirers, Campbell Crosby (Arnold’s cousin) and Ernest Chaplin (Arnold’s secretary) are part of the house party and are keen to draw Dorothy away from her intended partner. Furthermore it seems like Dorothy may reciprocate Chaplin’s feelings. None of this appeals to Arnold and a showdown is inevitable. Yet the following morning Arnold has disappeared, not to be found in the gardens or house. This becomes more inexplicable due to Arnold’s love of security. His house has an extensive burglar alarm system controlling all windows and doors. This has not been turned off during the night. All the doors and windows are fastened on the inside and the night watchman (whose has rigorous time checked rounds) did not see Arnold whilst on duty either. The grounds are surrounded by high walls topped with broken glass and the exiting gate is impregnable. So what has happened to Arnold?

Overall Thoughts

Wells is an author I have known about for a while but have only read for the first time now. I knew she was a mystery fiction critic and like Sayers contributed to the body of work the golden age offered on defining the genre. It was therefore interesting to read this story with that in mind, especially given how its publication shows it to be a form runner of the interwar mystery novel. Within it there are a number of familiar components to the vintage mystery fan: the country house setting, the final revealing of the solution in the library, the flirty bright young thing with her eye on the money and a good time, the less than pleasant patriarch and the potential romantic leads, which may or may not be good guys after all. Yet I think because they are used in an earlier novel, the way Wells writes about them has a certain freshness. They don’t feel worn or over used. There are even moments when the cast of characters feel quite modern. Wells draws her characters well, showing the intensity or conflicted nature of their feelings and her depiction of the romance/marriage plot is powerful rather than perfunctory. Dorothy is an interesting central protagonist as we’re not wholly able to see all her thoughts and there is definitely a point where we are shown we cannot entirely trust her.

Something which is perhaps unusual with the novel is its structure, as firstly there is no central detective, two or three are involved, including one over eager amateur. Some readers may feel the book is lacking due to there being no key detective, but I am not one of them. Furthermore, the preliminary answer as to where and what has happened to Arnold takes a while to unfold, 160 pages in, in fact, of a 254 paged book and this is perhaps the area which may upset locked room/impossible crime fans, as clearly the percentage of pages left for solving the crime is smaller than the build-up and discovery. Since I dislike long winded theorising this was probably less of a problem for me. I wouldn’t say the book is entirely fair play in terms of the mechanics of the impossibility, it is more told than shown, but I think this may be because Wells’ priorities were a little different from say those of John Dickson Carr, Rupert Penny or Norman Berrow. Perhaps because this is an earlier mystery, the culprit is a little easier to spot, but this was maybe more of hunch than a certainty for me.

Based on this read I think Wells is an author which I need to return to again soon, as she seems to be working at an interesting and fertile point in the genre and it would be good to get a better sense of her writing style and approach to mysteries. So all recommendations welcome as to further titles to seek. On an incidental note the title for this book may seem like a prosaic one, but in fact is tied into a much more specific contemporary culture reference, which completely passed me by. All I will say is, is that is does not refer to a literal alley way.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Tombstone

15 comments

  1. I imagine it is quite a challenge to find such a mystery that they have not read. And purely by accident I wonder if I have done just that…

    I’ve good new for you. You did, in fact, found a locked room novel that had not (fallen) before me. Interestingly, it was written by an author was quite prolific when it came to turning out impossible crime stories. As a matter of fact, Wells was one of the earliest novelist who, sort of, specialized in locked room stories.

    My only excuse for not having read Wells is that a good portion of her (locked room) novels reputedly relay on hoary, time-worn tropes like secret passages and hidden doors. However, everyone appears to love the innocently titled Raspberry Jam, which is the sole book by Wells currently on my TBR-pile. So you may take that one as my recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay! No mean feat either in my humble opinion. I can see what you mean about the mechanics of her locked room mysteries, the solution in this one may not appeal to you. Raspberry Jam is a pretty wacky title, remember coming across it for my post on weird mystery fiction titles. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Like

  2. I can echo TomCat in virtually every regard here: I’ve not read this, and I’ve not read Wells on account of the tendency for people to highlight the creakiness of he methods when resolving the many, many impossibilities she wrote. But you’ve intrigued me and I really should dive into one at some point; if TomCat takes Raspberry Jam I’ll do a bit of research and dig out another one for some point in 2018. Thanks, Kate!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the brave review. 🙂 Incidentally, I’ve recently completed ‘The Hollow Man’, and it sounds like Carolyn Wells isn’t quite like John Dickson Carr.

    I confess I’ve recently read at least two impossible/ locked-room mysteries that both TomCat and JJ have yet to read – even though they have read something by that author. But that’s because the works are awaiting translation and mass circulation…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My favorite of her early ones is Vicky Van, followed by The Curved Blades, The Mark of Cain, The Diamond Pin and, yes, Raspberry Jam. Where I downgrade Raspberry Jam is the incredibly tiresome entitled “heroine,” for want of a better word. Nice spinster aunt though, plus everyone’s favorite saucy boy assistant, Fibsy!

    Liked by 1 person

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