E. P. Fenwick was the penname Elizabeth Fenwick used for her first three crime novels: The Inconvenient Corpse (1943), Murder in Haste (1944) and today’s read. She then took a break from crime writing until 1957, writing mainstream novels in the interim. To find out more about Fenwick and these three novels I would recommend reading this post by Curtis Evans.
Barney Chance is driving a taxi for the summer before going back to college in September. One boiling hot Sunday morning he finally gets a fare outside the Hotel Clyde. It is a woman who he overhears is called Lenore. She is sent off by an unamicable man called Francis. Further ear wigging elicits that Lenore has been asking him to wait before doing something, whilst he sullenly tells her to go ahead since she is so keen on doing it her way. Mysterious but nothing too unusual. But then he is told where to drive his customer to – the same house Barney is staying at! Later that day he finally takes her back to her hotel and he thinks nothing more about it. Presumably Lenore was a friend of the Schafft family whom he rents from.
But the very next morning the police descend upon Room 617 of the Hotel Clyde and there are no points for guessing who they find dead… Lieutenant Eggart is on the case, and whilst it is initially given out as a suicide, he and the medical examiner are far from satisfied that it is. The police to begin with are unable to connect her with anyone, but of course that is where Barney comes in, who on reading the newspaper realises that the woman was Lenore. After that the pieces begin to fall into place as we discover Lenore’s difficult role within the household Barney lives in. Yet the case is far from simple and Eggart must keep peeling away the layers or versions of the truth to reveal the real state of affairs between the victim and those living within the Schafft household. But can he find and prove who the guilty party is?
This is a case where family relationships are crucial, and Fenwick provides us with quite a complex group to untangle. In keeping with other American female mystery writers, we have a central character who is not the perfect housewife and devoted spouse, but a woman who is happy to leave the care of her child to others and focus on her own personal happiness. Yet despite this not being a glowing endorsement for a person, the narrative is not overwhelmingly condemning and many of the characters are quite tolerant of what is quite selfish behaviour. Lenore descended upon the Schafft household infrequently, but it is her permanent absence through death which causes the greatest disruption in their lives and it also brings a lot of negative feelings towards others in the group to the surface.
Barney is not quite the main character I thought he would be, as after the opening of the book, his role in the book is superseded by the Lieutenant’s. Yet in some ways I think this gave the narrative a more realistic feel, though Barney still becomes the custodian of uncomfortable information later in the story.
I don’t think the reader anticipates developments too far ahead of time, just soon enough to feel like you’re one step ahead of the police. That said I think it is quite tricky to identify the culprit. You may get a hunch but there isn’t enough in text evidence to make you feel particularly sure. Whilst the first half of the book is good at unpacking the relationship dynamics between the relevant characters, I think the second half could have done with some more definitive clues.
Nevertheless, this first encounter with Fenwick’s work has piqued my curiosity and I would certainly be interested in reading more of her work.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House)