Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)
Roger Scarlett was the penname of two women, Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who wrote five mystery novels between 1930 and 1933, all set within New England and all of which were reprinted by Coachwhip last year (yeah I’m a bit behind – sorry about that!) I presumed since you get two stories in one with this first volume, that the stories were more novella sized. This is not the case, you are definitely getting normal sized novels – good value for money! In his introduction, Curtis Evans notes how the earlier works by the pair were influenced by Doyle and Van Dine and I can see that a bit in the puzzles these two mysteries pose and how Scarlett have a Watson narrator, but thankfully there is no Philo Vance counterpart.
The Beacon Hill Murders
Scarlett jumps straight into the action with Underwood, our narrator and an attorney, not looking forward to going to a dinner party hosted by one of his clients, Frederick Sutton, who is new money and therefore not agreeable company to Underwood. For various reasons his reluctance seems well founded, with Sutton’s family being poor conversationalists and Frederick himself makes a huge social gaff by trying to give an overly expensive jade pendent to one of the guests, Mrs Anceney a social queen bee and widow. This is a pendent with a story, and a deadly one to boot, as all who own it soon die or have very bad luck and this does indeed become the case, as later that night Frederick is found shot. There was only one other person in the room with him at the time and the gun could only have been fired from the angle this person was standing at. Yet this suspect unwisely remains silent on what has happened and when it is time they should finally speak out, it is too late – someone has got to them first, right under the nose of the police! Both deaths are locked room crimes due to various factors such as timings and single entry points being kept under observation.
For fans of mysteries with intricate puzzles, Scarlett’s work is definitely something to look out for, with its floor plans and time tabling. This does not make the writing style overly dry and dull, as Scarlett keeps your attention on Inspector Kane in an engaging way. From different points of view, looking at the case, and based on specific revelations the finger of suspicion manages to point to quite a number of suspects and it was only quite near the end that I twigged who the culprit was. Scarlett opens in a very effective way, getting straight down to business and the investigation moves at quite a fast pace and on the whole I would say the pacing is strong throughout.
That said, there are a few niggles with this story – then again this is a first effort and I think it has been useful to have the second novel included in the same volume, as you can easily tell some of these issues have been rectified. For instance, Underwood is somewhat of a massively snobbish Watson and is a bit of a wimp when it comes to getting involved with the investigation. In fact I would go so far as to say that in this first story he almost has a HIBK vibe to him in how he describes events. For example when narrating his experience of a trap they’ve set for the killer he says the following:
‘I tried to tell myself that I had become hysterical, that I was losing control of myself, that I must try not to think, that I must simply wait, but I doubt if any self-command of mine could have brought me to my senses.’
As he goes on I did feel like telling him to stop being so wimpy, after all, he only had to stand behind a curtain. The only other significant niggle readers might have with this first effort is how Kane arrives at his solution, mainly because you can’t really tell how he managed to join all the dots and in some cases finds the dots in the first place. However, the murder methods are very ingenious and there is a good bit of misdirection and deception in this quarter.
See also: Brad at Ahsweetmysteryblog has also reviewed this first story here.
The Back Bay Murders
In this second story, (which was later plagiarised by Don Basil), the victim is Arthur Prendergast, a neurotic young man who lodges at Mrs Quincy’s upmarket boarding house. He believes himself to be under siege from various peculiar attacks of malice – the latest including his room being ransacked and a suspiciously red stain left on his floor. It is this latest occurrence which draws Inspector Kane in and when he finds that the stain is not blood, he decides to return to the boarding house only to find that Arthur has been murdered. Of course all of the other boarders swear they know nothing which could help the case and see themselves to be so respectable that their word should just be simply believed. Unsurprisingly Kane does not take this approach and as in The Beacon Hill Murders, there is another well-timed second murder which prevents a witness from revealing what they know.
An intriguing aspect of the mystery in this novel is that very early on, Inspector Kane identifies who the killer is – yet he is convinced this will be an incredibly baffling case nonetheless. The reader wonders why, since duh you know who did it, but of course things are not quite what they seem and Scarlett create a lovely twist involving this angle of the book.
We also get to find out a bit more about Inspector Kane’s personality, as Underwood writes at the start of the case that:
‘There was a familiar light in Kane’s eye, a light that I had seen before. It gave him a curiously aloof and intent look, as though he were already working on a problem that as far as I was concerned did not yet exist. It always fascinated me to see him so eager to get something out of nothing. He had that kind of imagination, the kind that seizes upon a few seemingly disconnected facts and fits them into clear and logical sequence.’
And in a way I think it is this trait of character which leads to his conjuring up of the solution, yet I would not say he springs it from out of nowhere, as aside from one piece of information, the reader is given a lot of clues and information to fathom out. So this time around I felt more satisfied with the solution and choice of culprit and the killer is revealed in an exciting fashion.
As I hinted at above some of the niggles found in the first book have been eradicated in the second. For instance Kane is less high handed with his helpers and Underwood does not come across as snobby. Furthermore, Underwood appears less wimpy and gets into the mood for sleuthing a little more: ‘I felt the old excitement coming over me once more. After all, the things that Kane, as a police inspector, accepted as part of his day’s routine, were like Arabian tales to me.’ As well, I think that whilst Underwood is present throughout the story, he does not have a lot of presence – which is actually a good thing as it means any of his more annoying traits are kept well hidden. Also as with the first book the pacing is strong and keeps things moving quickly. One thing that I did find intriguing though was that both books ended incredibly abruptly. Once the solution has been delivered, the stories terminate after a closing remark by Kane, the narrative has no interest in telling us what happened to remaining suspects, but then I don’t think these stories foster that sort of character interest. Yet surprisingly this did not dampen my enthusiasm for this second book, as I thought it might have done.
So overall I would say that the second story is the stronger of the two, with the evidence being more available for the reader to solve the case and the characters are also more engaging on the whole. If you are in to locked room murders, you might want to jump straight to Murder Among the Angells (1932), where murder takes place in an elevator. It comes highly recommended by Tom Cat. It has also been well received in Japan, where Yokomizo Seishi was recommended it by Edogawa Rampo – a read which eventually led him on to Carr and many others, influencing his own crime writing. Of course it would be remiss of me to not mention Curtis Evans’ own postings on Scarlett, of which a general introduction to all of the novels can be found here.
Ratings: 4/5 (Beacon Hill Murders) 4.25/5 (The Back Bay Murders)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Pseudonymous Author and Title Contains Two Words Beginning with the Same Letter