This is my third read by Virginia Rath, having read Death at Dayton’s Folly (1935) during March 2020, and The Murders at Hillside (1931) during March this year. March obviously seems to be a good time to read a Rath novel! However, today’s read is the first novel I have read from the author’s Michael Dundas series, an amateur sleuth who works as a couturier. This might make you imagine this will be a cozy read, and an outfit is one of the clues, but this book in style, tone and theme does not operate as a cozy.
‘It has been six years since Rowena Talcott walked out of her San Francisco house and vanished into thin air. Then the scent of jasmine, a voice humming a song, and a shadowy figure in a dark hallway seem to indicate that her ghost is walking. Is it Rowena, herself, come back? Or is someone in the household trying to frighten Christopher Talcott’s fiancée, Anice?
One man who might have the answer is killed before Chris can reach him, and Michael and Valerie Dundas, amateur sleuths, find themselves in a mystery that grows ever deeper and more dangerous. Together with their friend, Inspector Prevost, they investigate the riddle of the private detective with the dubious reputation, the curiously unprofessional burglary, and the conflicting motives of a handful of suspects who are so few in number that the murderer should be obvious. But, instead, the suspense mounts and more murder follows, as each false clue only makes the solution of Rowena’s strange secret more difficult. And it is not until Michael Dundas realizes the full meaning of the shroud he himself designed that he is able to set a trap for a clever and surprising killer.’
As you can see from the synopsis this is a mystery which falls into the category of investigating a case in which ‘X disappears from their home after leaving for what is presumed a normal reason.’ Invariably, this person has been missing for quite a while and/or it takes a while for anyone to know that they have disappeared. Other books which fall into this group are Death of his Uncle (1939) by C. H. B. Kitchin, The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942) by Erle Stanley Gardner and The Departure of Mr Gaudette (1964) by Doris Miles Disney.
The prologue runs through the minutes before Rowena left the house for the final time. We are taken through her interactions with her aunt and father, and even from these opening pages the reader is alert to the little clues dropped that suggest her departure was not a normal one. Why is Rowena so well-dressed for going to her friend’s house? Why did her purse make such a loud noise when she dropped it? How do we place the burglary that took place that night within the whole sequence of events? However, deciphering the full significance of these clues will take more time. At the time the police failed to find a voluntary reason for her disappearing.
Rowena’s father is only present in the opening chapter, as he has died before the rest of the book takes place in 1946, (7 years after Rowena’s disappearance). Yet despite his brief page presence I felt him to be an entertainingly irascible and grumpy cerebral character. There are wonderful moments of humour through his myopic viewpoint of his own behaviour. For example, he explains that he engaged a male secretary because: ‘I was weary of genteel females who swooned when I uttered a good old Anglo-Saxon word and fled my study in tears when I ever so slightly and always with some provocation, raised my voice.’ He is not the sort of person you would want to live with but is certainly enjoyable to read about.
Her father as I said is dead for most of the book, but the unusual will he leaves behind has long term consequences and is a possible motive behind the present eerie and then murderous goings on. Add into the mix a private investigator called Henry Hunt who was hired by him to find Rowena. The police at the time are highly suspicious of the fact that as Hunt declares he can go no further with the case, claiming there are no further leads to follow, he becomes flush with money. Has his silence been paid for? I felt this was a really good aspect of the mystery as it becomes pivotal to the present day in the story, and it opens up a number of plot development possibilities as the question I have just asked has many potential answers.
When we return to the present in the narrative we enter the Talcott household through returning war veteran Chris Talcott, Rowena’s brother. He is anxious about meeting his family again and he also has some qualms about his fiancée, Anice. We have a wonderful scene in which no one has heard him come in, so he ends up overhearing a lot of comments about himself. They imply some kind of “situation” concerning him yet tantalising we don’t quite know what this situation fully is. From this point we hear more about Anice and then the mysterious events which had taken place in the house. It is not long before Chris’ initial probing into matters leads to death.
To change tack, I would like to briefly comment on the writing style as I found it really appealed to me. In particular I thought the author was good at just using a word here or there which just elevated the quality of her descriptions or narration. For example, when commenting on the Talcott house, she writes that it had ‘a bad case of architectural acne’; a vivid image which manages to cover a lot through one word. Then when it comes to Christopher who has to deal with lots of neighbours dropping in to see him, she reveals his lack of enthusiasm by saying that: ‘Chris dug his best faculty-tea manner from the mothballs and sent everyone home happy.’ Finally, one which made me laugh was another building description when she writes that:
‘Its hall walls and light fixtures would have interested a geologist. On them were represented five distinct ages of grime: prewar, early war, just plain war, medium late war and “pretty soon we’ll have to do something about this.’
Overall, I felt the book had a good pace, and whilst it is not non-stop action, the plot never lags or drags and certainly has its share of dramatic incidents. Information, which fills in the picture of what has been going on, is distributed at regular intervals and often through the dialogue. There are not long sections in which no new information is offered. The nature of the case changes shape as it unfolds, and its final configuration is not what you might have initially been expecting.
A Shroud for Rowena is the 7th out of the eight Michael Dundas novels, so I do not have a strong sense of his entry point into sleuthing. I don’t think this particularly affected my enjoyment of the book though. Interestingly in this novel we learn he has been in army intelligence and in fact only arrives back in San Francisco the same night Chris does, his wife Valerie not having seen him for two years. Valerie has a minor role in this book, though one of her earlier appearances is very important to the plot. I am not sure whether she is more involved in the sleuthing in any of the other books. This is not an amateur sleuthing only mystery and I would say Michael works closely with the police.
As has been noted elsewhere the weakest point of the book is the final section. It is by no means disastrous, nor does it have an awful book chucking solution. Nevertheless, the ending leans a little too much on letter confessions and could have been truncated. However, I will say that these letters are discussed by the characters, and a number of aspects mentioned within them have been pieced together earlier or have been built up to. The dialogue response also enables the reader to see the clues they had missed.
So on the whole this was a good read and I would like to try more mysteries featuring Michael Dundas.
All Rath’s mysteries have been reprinted by Coachwhip Publications, which makes life a lot easier for getting a hold of copies.
SPOILER ALERT DO NOT READ THE PARAGRAPH BELOW UNLESS YOU HAD READ THE BOOK!
The ending contains the big surprise that Anice, was part of the criminal conspiracy and I am in two minds as to how fair play this aspect of the solution is. At the start Chris’ family disclose a low opinion of Anice and mercenary qualities are presumed of her. However, the reader and Chris put this down to class prejudice and once we see her in person, we buy in to the idea of her being one of the good guys. I felt this was a clever red herring, but that maybe it could have been a bit more lead up to. I am unsure whether this earlier scene was sufficient to build up to the final twist.