You’ll be aware by now, I hope, that I’m quite the fan of a locked room murder. That quantal aspect of something that can’t have happened but nevertheless did tickles me greater the more I read, and so the republication of anything from the classic era is always a cause for celebration. The British Library continue their excellent Crime Classics series with this, their first impossible crime, in which elderly spinster Mary Gregor is found dead in her locked and bolted bedroom (a nice touch with the door lock forestalls the prospect of jiggery, and indeed pokery, there) with no sign of a weapon and the blow that killed her containing the scale from a herring and so stirring up superstitious rumours of merman-like ‘swimmers’ finding their way in to dispatch her.
On the spot is Dr. Eustace Hailey, who by his reputation appears to be Wynne’s incumbent amateur sleuth, and so he is pulled into a Highland mystery at a gloomy old ancestral home that ends up the scene of plenty of mysterious comings and goings, clandestine meetings, false leads, and several further seemingly-impossible deaths. Obviously we know he’ll solve it in time, but who will be left to act as a suspect as the dramatis personae gets whittled down and down?
Sometimes, as Noah Stewart recently pointed out, an aspect of a book strikes you and you can’t get it out of your head. With me and Murder of a Lady it was the characterisation that I struggled to get past, and this doubtless slightly affected my enjoyment of this book. For example, the dead woman’s brother and laird of the castle, Hamish Gregor, is presented as a closed-minded man who is too deeply mired in the expectations of the Highland Folk to really elicit any sympathy, and yet we are expected to side against Inspector Dundas when he is not sympathetic towards him or his outmoded traditions, the narrow-minded oaf. Conversely, the theatrical, hale, bumptious Inspector Barley is a Grade A irritant yet Hailey is (and so, by analog, we the reader are expected to be) impressed by him when he goes about things in pretty much the same style that Dundas is derided for just with more pompous foreign quotations and greater loquaciousness. Frankly, this bothered me.
The fact that the other characters behave in a very believable manner – and Mary Gregor is brought startlingly to life in her absence, bringing to mind the treatment of the victim in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1958) – is both a credit to Wynne’s clear imagining of his diverse cast and also one of the stumbling blocks the narrative faces. It feels at times that it takes bloody ages to get everyone to a point where they agree on something Hailey figured out quickly for himself 20 pages earlier – while a lot of “Oh, yes, of course my good man, we’ll accept that without further question” wouldn’t ring true (points Wynne) I was often four chapters on before it occurred to me that they were still clearing up some minor point which is already established. But, then, this might just be my problem.
However, Wynne has an absolutely wonderful line on the psychology of the situation and, while the superstition of the Rural Folk is never quite explored or developed fully, he is able to communicate some things with a striking clarity:
“Panic never reasons, you know. It acts in advance of reason, according to instinct. Instinct’s only concern is to erect a barrier against the cause of the panic…[It] consists of two separate elements, namely an immediate fear and a remote dread. It’s not always conscience that makes cowards of us, sometimes it’s memory. Having dreaded some contingency for years, we lose our head completely when it seems to be at hand.”
This is mainly a classically-styled piece of rococo detection, though, with the mystery being the heart of everything, and so commend itself to those of you who like plenty or red herrings and multiple interpretations for otherwise-blameless acts, even if the answer does then rather come out of nowhere.
The method itself is probably fine – and there are a couple of nice false solutions along the way – but I wasn’t completely convinced by its repeated success (there’s one rather key factor in the first two cases which leaves a little too much to chance). However, I’ve accepted and forgiven less likely schemes and, to be honest, I think I’m mainly down on it because of another issue I have, this time with the clew-ing. This suffers from the same problem as another locked room I read recently (Hoodwink by Bill Pronzini) in that the same small yet frankly huge piece of evidence is only mentioned for the very first time as a casual aside during the solution, and it kinda changes everything. These are puzzle plots, dammit; you don’t go overlooking that kind of detail, and I shall keelhaul the next author who pulls this kind of nonsense!
I would love to be unhesitatingly enthusiastic about this, but these couple of points marred my enjoyment enough to drag it down a peg or two. The killer is superbly hidden (but then the method plays a part in that…) and anyone looking for a classical piece of crime fiction will be more than adequately gruntled by what is on display here, however. And, misgivings aside, I’d love to read more Wynne based on this, so here’s hoping the British Library have some more of his Hailey impossible crimes up their sleeves, and the physical object of these editions is so consistently produced to such a high standard that they’re a joy to read no matter what the contents.
Given the deserved attention that this BL series has been getting you can find reviews of this all over the place, so there’s plenty of opportunity to seek out alternative perspectives – see Beyond Eden Rock, CrossExamingCrime, Desperate Reader, His Futile Preoccupations, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and many others. However, special kudos must be given to TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and ‘Passing Tramp’ Curtis Evans who were both onto this before the British Library reprinted it – in this instance, as many others, they’re the cool kids on the back row of the bus and the rest of us are merely posturing so they’ll let us sit with them.
I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category A Country Scene.