I’ve been looking forward to trying this title for quite a few months now, fuelled by an article in CADs magazine, which incidentally was written by Nigel Moss, who wrote the introduction for this Harper Collins reprint. Moss does a great job of engagingly informing us on not just Loder, (one of many pennames for John Vahey), but on the book itself, providing an interesting comparison with Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, which also happened to be published in 1930, featuring a corpse in a department store’s window. Coincidence? It was also great to find references to two fellow bloggers, J. F. Norris and Curtis Evans – it’s always fun to have that “I know that name” moment.
So today’s review is looking at Loder’s 4th mystery novel and shoppers get a surprise waiting for the new window display at Mander’s Department Store to be revealed, when two corpses are spotted in the display: namely of the store’s grandiose owner Tobias Mander and one of his chief fashion buyer’s Effie Tumour (odd surname I know). Inferences of course are quickly drawn about why Effie was on the premises after hours and Inspector Devenish is faced with trying to figure out what combination of murder, accident or suicide these two deaths comprise. Motives are soon unearthed from potential jealousy of Effie’s fiancé and Tobias’ patroness to business skulduggery and more.
I seem to be reviewing a lot of books this month that are made for puzzle fans, as Loder gives his readers a puzzle and then some! Morris in his introduction to the book comments on Loder’s ‘enigmatic clues’ and his ‘fiendishly intricate plotting’ and both of these descriptions are warranted for this book in my opinion. Loder builds up quite a mystery through what you could describe as a surfeit of clues, (missing bullet and weapon, more than one weapon, the role of the shop lifts, wheel prints on the roofs…), many of which the reader and the police know must be red herrings, faked up to mislead, yet the tricky part is trying to figure out the truth they are attempting to obfuscate. Still I think this book could probably win the award for mystery with most criminal fakery in it, along with the award for most unusual place for a suspect to get shot in. The solution is a little fantastical in terms of character psychology but in terms of practicalities Loder provides his readers with a quirky, ‘tragi-comedy’ of a solution to the deaths, fully backed up by the various clues and information that Devenish finds out.
Devenish is likened to Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French, which did make me a little uneasy given my lack of enthusiasm for Crofts’ creation, yet I found I quite enjoyed Devenish as a character. He engagingly lets his suspects trip themselves up and there is a likeable sharpness to him at times. I also appreciated that Devenish’s thorough investigation was concisely recorded, so inquiries into lift carpets are dealt with in a couple of paragraphs as opposed to other authors, who shall remain nameless, who go on and on and on about similar minutiae.
Yet for all the puzzle focus, Loder still has time to make effective lines of characterisation. This is most palpable in the opening chapter, where we hear about Tobias, a self-made owner and his savvy press campaign. In a way it made me think of ITV’s Mr Selfridges*:
‘The connoisseurs among the men called him a ‘cheery bounder,’ but the women’s votes were mixed. Some thought him charming, if vulgar; and others vulgar if charming; while a few, who had encountered his roving blue eyes with a twinkle in them, declared themselves fascinated.’
I also liked the slow reveal of the bodies as it takes the shoppers some time to spot them and I loved this comment by the narrator: ‘Someone in the meantime had removed the public nuisance, who had fainted, and the rest of the crowd surged back to see the horror.’ I think it is a good example of how effective Loder can be in his pithy and concise writing style.
All in all a mystery which gives you plenty to think about, so if you want to give your little grey cells some good exercise then I’d strongly recommend this book.
Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
The Mystery at Stowe (1928)
* I am basing this on the adverts, got to admit, as I’ve not actually watched the program, so do feel free to correct me if I am wrong.