I am sneaking in a final review before June comes to a close. Today’s read is by an author new to me, and I think this was her second mystery novel, her first being The Black Pigeon (1929). She would write four more mysteries during the 1930s: Murder Backstairs (1930), Murder at Bridge (1931), which sounds like it anticipates Christie’s more famous Cards on the Table (1936), One Drop of Blood (1932) and Murdered but not Dead (1939). She also wrote 6 romances. However, beyond the 1930s there is no evidence that she published anything else. Aside from her debut mystery, the remaining ones feature James Dundee nicknamed Bonnie, who in today’s story is just starting out as a detective on his first murder case.
‘The boarding house run by Mrs Rhodes was a pleasant place, clean and quiet, that is until one of her lodgers Emma Hogarth is found brutally murdered in her room. The victim had been reputed to keep a large amount of cash hidden in her room. Certainly many of the current and former lodgers would have found a use for the money, and not a few of them were keeping secrets. But there was also a hint that something in Emma Hogarth’s past might have been behind her murder. For his first case, newly appointed detective James Dundee might gave wished for something simpler, especially when he discovers that his best witness is a parrot.’
The involvement of a parrot in the mystery was one of the reasons I was curious to try this story. Cap’n, the victim’s parrot, is not the first psittacine to star in a detective story, with an earlier example being found in Earl Derr Biggers’ The Chinese Parrot (1926), yet Cap’n anticipates Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1947), which also includes a parrot as a possible witness to a murder. Interestingly, according to the introduction in my Resurrection Press edition, Cap’n makes cameo appearances in some of Austin’s other mysteries. So perhaps Austin is the first to have a reoccurring parrot in her mystery fiction. However, despite being the eponymous character, Cap’n does not appear very often in the story, and he only really provides one rather oblique clue to get Dundee thinking in a certain direction. There is also the possibility that Cap’n may have obscured the presumed time of death by calling out instead of his mistress. All the same this is not a book to read purely for its parrot.
Nevertheless, this novel is not a poor read. The introduction to my copy asserts that Austin was ‘concerned with the psychology of her characters, which play a larger role in her books than the actual mechanics of the crime.’ Yet we are reassured that there is still ‘a chain of evidence’ leading to the killer. But having now read the book, I am not sure this narrative holds up all these claims. Now normally I would be writing that the character psychology was brilliant but that the investigation was nothing to write home about, but instead I was much surprised to find that fans of a mystery in which a clear case is built up bit by bit are not going to be disappointed by this one. That said I don’t think Austin’s characters are cardboard thin and she sets up Dundee well as a confident, but not arrogantly confident, first-time sleuth. I would not label her a psychological crime author, but perhaps this is more the case in her later efforts.
James Dundee enters the story optimistic about getting stuck into police work, having been to college in the UK and having worked at Scotland Yard, on the paperwork side of things. Lieutenant John Strawn sees him as a ‘storybook detective’ and through his experiences in this book, Dundee’s first murder case helps him to see the grim realities of being a police detective. His reactions to his first crime scene bear this out. Whilst he solves the case, rather than his more experienced superior, that does not mean that Dundee has nothing to learn, and he is pulled up short at times when he essentially tries to teach Strawn how to suck eggs. I liked this balance within the novel, and I think Austin conveys this aspect with enjoyable gentle humour.
The reader is given several possible motives and suspects and the investigation works through them engagingly. There is an ex-boarder who may have had a grudge and designs upon the victim’s supposed wealth. Then there is a newly engaged couple whose union would lead to one of them getting cut out of Emma’s Hogarth’s will, and there is also the real possibility that someone from Emma’s past may have been responsible. This last angle is introduced and developed well.
By the three-quarter point, a last minute and surprising killing is unfurled. However, I think the reader will have a good idea who the murderer is by this point anyway and this new eruption of violence should confirm it. For the experienced mystery reader certain pieces of evidence will stand out and lead them to the right solution before Dundee. In particular there is an alibi which can easily be busted. I think the reason why this mystery is easier to solve is because it provides the reader very fairly with a lot of information. Perhaps what Austin needed to work on was causing greater confusion and obfuscation so this information would be better camouflaged.
So whilst this was not the trickiest of mysteries, it was still overall an enjoyable read.
See also: Bev at My Reader’s Block has also reviewed this title.