Today I am looking at a small-town set mystery, narrated by Doctor Ruth Fisher. From the get-go we are informed that a reclusive and elderly woman, Antoinette Wyndham, has been murdered; poisoned in fact, and that she not only made enemies amongst her own relations but elsewhere too. Doctor Fisher is not a Watson character, but it is through her that we hear about the events leading up to Antoinette’s death. In the hours running up to her demise, Antoinette’s actions ensure she is widely loathed, and we also hear about a series of thefts, as well as how the killer may have gained their murder weapon. Suspicion is mostly concentrated on the relations. Did Richard Wyndham, the favoured nephew and sole legatee of her will, bump her off? But when the will is discovered to be missing accusations are aimed at the remaining nephews and niece; the latter of whom lives with Doctor Fisher. Then there is also Antoinette’s neighbour who has made it her life’s mission to buy the Wyndham house and furniture. When Antoinette threatened to burn the house down rather than let her have it, did this neighbour take matters into their own hands?
This is my first read from this author, so I did not know what to expect, but the initial unfolding of the case delivered a mystery with a number of interesting threads, (not all of which I mentioned above). We have a reasonable amount of suspects and even some unusual motives for murder, as well as one well-conceived character reveal, which dovetails with the information given out to the reader.
I also found it very interesting that Ford chose a female doctor to be her narrator. Although she does not belabour this angle, she does pause at one point to have Doctor Fisher comment on the difficulties of entering the medical profession:
‘The position of a woman doctor in any small town is anomalous enough, but in a small southern town where there’s a definite notion that there are some things a lady doesn’t do, her position is still more curious. For years I treated whooping cough, measles, and mumps in the very young. Later I was called in for impoverished adults who couldn’t afford anything better.’
Eventually once other older male doctors die, (let’s hope she didn’t kill them!), she is able to gain a respectable footing in the community, having lived there so long.
However, I did have some issues with the book. On the one hand Ford avoids indulging in the HIBK style when it comes to the night-time female snooping in the plot, but on the other, the detective novel she presents is something of an odd one. The problem is, is that Doctor Fisher is neither a true Watson narrator, detailing the detective’s investigation, nor an amateur sleuth in her own right. Doctor Fisher does not go out of her way to find things out, she merely happens to walk into them. Yet she rarely ever tells the lieutenant working the case any of the things she finds out. It is invariably down to other characters to bring these pieces of information to his attention, which gives the pair an ambiguous relationship. At times this is partially understandable as Doctor Fisher is concerned for the suspicious acting niece, but at other times there does not seem to be much of reason for her reticence. Thankfully the lieutenant is one smart cookie and he does not seem to miss much!
Furthermore, although it is through Doctor Fisher that we can see something of the lieutenant’s activities, he mostly works behind the scenes. Consequently, the book did sometimes feel like it was treading water, as no new information was coming in. This aspect of the plot also contributes to the tell rather than show style of the concluding chapters. Conversations which happened off page are frequently reported, and I felt the trial at the end was not as effective as it should have been. More experienced mystery readers will know how to interpret it.
The solution did not wholly surprise me, as part way through the book I had wondered if X was the culprit, but then pushed the thought aside. Interestingly near the denouement of the story there is a section which felt a lot like an embedded challenge to the reader. Doctor Fisher says:
‘I’m quite willing to admit that I was totally bewildered by the whole affair. Although at this point even I really had nearly all the essential clues in my hands.’
This comment is then followed up by four questions Doctor Fisher says she has and her possible ideas as to their answers.
I appreciate I have not given a glowing report for this tale, yet I find in retrospect Ford includes more clues in the narrative than you first presume. I think if Doctor Fisher had been working a little more closely with the lieutenant, and that she herself had been a bit more on the ball, this would have made a very good puzzle-clue mystery. This was only Ford’s second novel, and I imagine she was still finding her feet, so I would still give her work a further try, (or two). If you know of any really good ones by her, let me know!