Henrietta Hamilton was the penname for Denne Shepherd (1920-1995) and her mysteries were brought back into the public eye when Agora Books began reprinting them in 2020 (?). However, earlier this year it was revealed that Agora were going to be publishing at least 6 previously unprinted works from this author. The introduction to this story, written by the author’s nephew, explains that during her lifetime Hamilton only published four of her mysteries, between 1956 and 1959. Yet it has been discovered that she had in fact wrote 13 more. Today’s read is believed to have been written in 1956 and literary detective work has placed it as third in the Sally and Johnny Heldar series. The last of the unpublished titles was believed to have been written in 1964-5. It fascinates me that within ten years someone could have produced quite so many books, yet only published a fraction of them. It is suggested that changing tastes in crime fiction may have contributed to this, but it still seems strange nevertheless.
‘The Man Who Wasn’t There is the first of the recently discovered Henrietta Hamilton mysteries to be published and is part of the Sally and Johnny Heldar mystery series. People who get mixed up in murder cases must expect to be bothered. And so it is for amateur sleuths Sally and Johnny Heldar late one evening. It seems cousin Tim has found himself in a bit of a pickle: his fiancée, Prue, has reneged on their engagement after becoming a suspect in the murder of her unlikeable employer. Desperate to win her back, Tim pleads with the Heldars to help clear Prue’s name. But Sally and Johnny find themselves perplexed by the Willow Walk murder. Filled with blackmail and plagiarism, wartime treachery and lying witnesses, the crime-solving duo have their work cut out for them. But will they be able to help Prue… or is she more wrapped up in the case than Tim realised?’
In keeping with the other two mysteries I have read by Henrietta Hamilton, the opening begins well, setting up an interesting case for the Heldars to be plunged into. The Prue angle initially worried me as it looked like we were going to be faced with a young woman in jeopardy who feels she cannot reveal her damning secrets and then proceeds to act mysteriously for the rest of the book, making life unnecessarily harder for the detectives. The victim is something of a sensation fiction moustache twirling villain after all. Thankfully, though this is not the case, as Prue willingly opens up to Johnny and Sally.
By chapter 4 there are a number of strands in the case to investigate and with the mystery fleshed out in this manner, it feels like the sleuths have enough to follow up on. Like other Hamilton mysteries, there are links to WW2, which seems to cast a long shadow upon the lives of those in the book. This past may provide a key to the motive of the murder or show how the killer gained the skills required to do the deed.
The police, in the main, work off the page and only appear occasionally. Sally and Johnny are therefore the primary sleuthing focus. They work together, sort of. They are often together when a suspect is questioned, but it is Johnny who does the questioning. Sally is more part of the subsequent discussions of the evidence. This is another mystery in which chivalry makes an appearance, (see my last review), and Johnny and Tim are very much of the opinion that you should ensure the safety of the ladies at all times. To that end, Johnny often tries to manoeuvre Sally out of some sleuthing tasks, which thankfully in this book she mostly squashes: ‘He wasn’t keen to take Sally to Hampstead with him, but Mrs Williams, their daily, was willing to babysit, and Sally insisted on coming.’
Sally, moreover, does indulge in one spot of independent sleuthing, which leads to very important information being uncovered. However, like other cases they have been engaged upon, Johnny takes a very dim view of her acting alone, the chivalry principle at work, as evinced in the passage below:
‘When Johnny came in and heard Sally’s confession, he was not pleased, and he became extremely Heldar. “I don’t like your visiting suspects on your own. Please don’t do it again.” But he listened to her story intently and with understanding.’
Now if she was going off alone to an isolated country house to confront a killer without telling one then Johnny might have a point. As it is Sally goes around to someone’s house in town during the middle of the day, so his reaction seems excessive. There is a real sense that Johnny thinks Sally has done something worth disapproving of and the word ‘confession,’ almost makes it seem like Sally believes herself she was doing something inappropriate or something she should feel guilty about.
Nevertheless, later on in the book Johnny does reveal the potential weakness in chivalry when he discusses with Sally, Prue’s story. Suspicion is still attached to her and Johnny cannot easily extricate her from it. After all he says that:
‘And we may note here that the whole tone of the story might have been deliberately calculated for its effect on a young man of Tim’s temperament. A young, inexperienced, unprotected, and extremely attractive girl is the answer to Tim’s subconscious prayer.’
I like the final sentence as in some ways you could say it is Tim who is the young, inexperienced, and unprotected individual.
At one point in the novel, it is written that ‘Johnny seemed to be making a habit of taking people and weapons to Scotland Yard’ and I think on the whole this escorting service is perhaps a bit overdone. It does become repetitive for the suspects to keep voluntarily unburdening their souls to the Heldars, so that they can then be handed over to the police to tell them. I appreciate that the author needed the police to be made aware of the information the Heldars learn, but I think if the amateur and professional sleuths worked more closely then this narrative stratagem could have been used more sparingly.
Whilst the story starts well and the investigation successfully gets underway, I think by the 75% mark the story begins to lose some steam and I found one of Johnny’s light bulb moments came out of nowhere. It has a jarring effect on the plot and also makes the unveiling of the killer less well executed.