We are 30 pages into Dead Man Control (1936) when the case is sealed up beyond any doubt: a millionaire shot dead in his study, the door locked and bolted on the inside, his new, much younger wife unconscious on the floor (her fingerprints on the gun, too), no hiding places, and freshly fallen snow on all the window-ledges to preclude the clandestine exit of anyone else who could have been present. Clearly the wife dunnit, and everyone can go home early today. So therefore Inspector Christopher McKee has to be summoned back to New York from his holiday in England because…er, it looks too easy? And as he investigates, secrets there was no reason to suspect begin to spill out…
In a way, this — the book’s raison d’être — is very much the biggest strength and the most ineradicable problem with the ensuing narrative. McKee’s investigation is skilfully cast in the procedural mould, and is as detailed and forensic in its execution as could be hoped for (the Crofts fan in me was delighted). But, well, there’s just no need for it, and nothing to justify it except the lady under suspicion possessing a noisy bath — and even the most cursory consideration could dispose with that. As such, Reilly seems to hurl her own book straight into an agon that it doesn’t need, with exegesis sought in sundry surrounding circumstances which never actually touch the central murder plot.
As such, a narrative gloom is cast by this tenebrous element of her plotting: the investigation is not under any circumstances validated beyond a sort of communal ad hoc disbelief that Katherine Kingston couldn’t possibly have done it (while everyone also admits that it would be perfectly understandable if she had…). And Katherine herself isn’t helping — nebbishly refusing to say anything beyond a flat and unconvincing denial of her guilt, providing no clarity on the legitimate questions raised, and as such remaining a somewhat nondescript presence at the heart of the puzzle — one who it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting too attached to or defensive about.
Into this adust landscape of zero motivation and seemingly endless police resources Reilly does work a huge amount of incident, it has to be said. McKee could be anthropomorphically cast as the terrier that his sobriquet “the Scotsman” brings to mind, tirelessly bouncing from the murder to a break-in to suspicious figures in the garden to a second death, interviewing everyone at just the right moment for someone to waltz in and pronounce something meaningful in his earshot, sending him worrying at the heels of some other poor unfortunate. In this regard, the piling of incident upon event upon disclosure reminded me very much of Carter Dickson’s The White Priory Murders (1934)…with the drawback that here there seems to be no point to it all. Police departments do no call detectives back across the Atlantic just to stare the gift horse of an open-and-shut case in the mouth.
It is, however, beautifully written:
She was like the wreck of a graceful ship consumed by fire inwardly and about to blow to pieces, but with the hull still intact, the rigging up. Her history could be read at a glance. A select boarding school for young ladies, not quite select enough, marriage to a man of promise who had somehow betrayed her, a charming home on the wrong side of the tracks; she would be a good housekeeper, she would have the newest things in furniture and hangings which she would call décor, she would entertain beyond her means, would belong to half a hundred clubs, would have the latest literary-artistic-economic patter at the tip of her tongue, and would be regarded as a model wife and mother by her equally mullet-headed friends.
Eventually, “bullshit” is called and McKee required to explain his belief in Katherine’s innocence…and on both occasions he doesn’t but Reilly simply carries on with the investigation as if he has. At this point I skipped ahead liberally, my patience worn thin, to the moment of elucidation in the final chapters, only to discover that there’s no real clewing, no real chain of evidence, no reason for the guilty party to be suspected or to confess (which they do, off-page, as McKee gathers everyone in a different location and then retrodicts everything that happened to make it point at that person). It’s not even really an impossible crime if we’re being honest — surprising, given that its presence on this list is what brought this to my attention to begin with.
If there was time to read and review something else in place of this I would, because I’m left bored and disaffected by the entire experience. It gets one star for promise and one for the occasionally superb writing and sporadic diverting weirdness (at one point, it appears that McKee is raising baby crocodiles…have I got that right?). And even if those appeal, it’s difficult to recommend that you bother with this on any level.