The classic GAD puzzle plot being the complex and obstreperous beast it is, we should not be surprised that sometimes it took two brains to wrestle in into readable shape (under a single name so as to simplify things) — Ellery Queen, Francis Beeding, Kelley Roos, Patrick Quentin, etc. Now, thanks to the work of Coachwhip and Curtis Evans, we can all add another collaborative nom de plume to our libraries with Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s Roger Scarlett and their Boston-set country house conundra. And, as with their distinguished kin, they prove to have an equally troublesome first swing at this while also showing a huge amount of promise.
The first half is rather superb, and it really only falls down due to an insufficiency of clewing in the later stages — a certain amount of “Well, of course, I saw this and knew that and found two of these…” while the reader flips back through 80 pages going Er, was I shown any of that?? Rest assured, you were not. The one proper clue that is fairly provided is included in a plan of the house at the centre of this narrative, and so staggeringly obfuscated that anyone who says they picked up on it is a liar or better at this than me.
However, it’s not as if Blair and Page are unaware of the lands into which they stray here, with Inspector Kane — I don’t think he’s given a first name in this book, but the back cover calls him Norton — remarking as he ascends to the room where an impossible shooting has just occurred, “We may not find footprints in the snow, but there are always the forgotten calling card and the initialed handkerchief to be hoped for”. It’s a moment of self-awareness that augurs well for the book to follow, a hint that the authors know the rules of the game, but it does not pay off. Clues, one feels, are very much to be heard of and not seen.
It must be said, though, that the writing is superb. We get setup, setting, cast, and framing of problem with laudable efficiency and clarity, and then Kane is summoned to the scene by our Watson, the lawyer Underwood, who invigilates proceedings, tracking our genius from room to room (except when Kane discovers anything worthwhile, which we nearly always hear about retrospectively) and being suitably impressed when a deduction is pulled from nowhere. In this way, Kane never really feels like the professional detective we’re told he is, coming over much more as a law-unto-himself Holmesian (smoking at a crime scene, t’cha!) than a progress-up-the-ranks man in the Hadley idiom, and it’s difficult not to feel that Kane is made a policeman purely so as to distinguish himself, as if the badge he wears makes any difference.
A second murder follows hard upon — not impossible, in spite of what you might hear elsewhere, as the room is left unobserved on two separate occasions — and I loved an aspect of this one. Essentially, that person is killed probably because they know who committed the first murder (indeed, it seems very likely they would, given how Kane reveals the initial, impossible shooting to have been accomplished). However, if they knew, why didn’t they say anything? Usually the reasons for this sort of reticence are ropey in the extreme, but the contemporary details tied up in the justifications for this silence are the sort of clearly-expressed window on the world at the time that enrich these undertakings when communicated with as much clarity as they are here.
It’s a shame that the second half consists of so much repetition and the hasty joining of plot points that do not join; some of the revelations are great, but some make no sense (the hiding of the…thing in the secret drawer…frankly, what is that about?), and Kane does a lot of “Well, of course, this is how it all happened and what they were thinking and why they did it” which is specious at best and revisionist at its most telling. Others have commented on the class snobbery, but I don’t think it’s any worse than a lot of what is encountered in this genre in this era, and Underwood being a slightly over-dramatic man feels almost like the two women who created him having a bit of fun at Dr Watson’s expense. It becomes a curious mix of EIRF and HIBK schools come the end, but by then we’ve veered so far from the puzzle origins that I was simply going to take whatever was served to me and not worry how pleasant it tasted.
This Coachwhip edition — a beautifully-produced physical book, and benefitting from the compendious introduction by Curtis Evans — comes with the second Roger Scarlett novel The Back Bay Murders (1930) included, and I’m very intrigued to see how Blair and Page develop from here. The flaws that crop up in this debut are undeniable, but so is the promise on display.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: For fans of mysteries with intricate puzzles, Scarlett’s work is definitely something to look out for, with its floor plans and time tabling. This does not make the writing style overly dry and dull, as Scarlett keeps your attention on Inspector Kane in an engaging way. From different points of view, looking at the case, and based on specific revelations the finger of suspicion manages to point to quite a number of suspects and it was only quite near the end that I twigged who the culprit was.
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: However, that intellectual acumen might frustrate those readers who like to play along. Based upon just this first novel, I found myself liking Kane as a person but feeling skeptical about his deductive methods. He has a habit of sitting his team down and dazzling them with a new revelation – all based on information we were never given.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: All of that being said, The Beacon Hill Murders is an imperfect, but promising, debut and could have been better had the authors not so closely imitated the plotting-style of Van Dine. Nevertheless, Blair and Page deserve credit for breaking out of that mold and finding a voice of their own, which resulted in the gem known as Murder Among the Angells. Not to mention that they would go on to exert influence of their own over the development of the Japanese detective story! So that alone makes their maiden voyage an interesting read, but, by itself, it’s not that bad of a detective story. Undistinguished, perhaps, but definitely not a bad for a first try!
The Roger Scarlett mysteries of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, published by Coachwhip Publications: