Whatever I thought of this book, I was committed to reading more of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s Roger Scarlett mysteries as I had already bought volume 2 of the Coachwhip reissues — comprising the novels Cat’s Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angells (1932). Impetuous? I prefer optimistic: the promise on display in their debut augured well for their future, and I believed remuneration would be found somewhere in these pages. So it’s either my own foresight or my stubborn inability to admit a mistake that sees me having a hugely enjoyable time with this one…I shall leave it to the reader to choose.
As with The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) — and, I understand, with the three remaining books from this partnership — we follow Inspector Kane of the Boston Police Department (the back cover tells us his first name is Norton, but I’m pretty sure that’s not mentioned in either of these books) through the eyes of his lawyer associate Underwood in the investigation of a murder, set mainly in one of Boston’s old mansions. This time it is young Arthur Prendergast, complaining of persecution from some quarter, whose throat is slit the day after his room is defaced with fake bloodstains. Kane, Underwood, and the obtuse-but-eager Sergeant Moran descend as the denizens of the boarding house begin to adjust to the idea of a murderer in their midst…
As befits a second novel, this is a lot more confident in both its plotting and its character. Kane is a genius amateur detective in all but amateur status, blessed with “that kind of imagination, the kind that seizes upon a few seemingly disconnected facts and fits them into a clear and logical sequence” which is perhaps predictably necessary at the heart of these plots, but elsewhere we get touches of the unexpected — such as Moran’s casual disdain for a witness shown by his offering Underwood “a rank, five-cent” cigar at a key moment — that are all the more potent by the confidence with which they are left implicitly meaningful. And the suspects, too, offer up a more diverse set of potentials, from the garrulous Mrs. Balbirnie and the blind Mr. Weed to the aloof Mr. Wainwright whose attitude betrays “a subconscious denial of a society that no longer paid attention to the things he stood for”.
Structurally, too, there’s much more going on here than in their debut, with a similar reliance on alibis flipped somewhat on its head by the halfway stage, and a very, very smart scheme revealed behind events to that point. Sometimes it’s possible to feel that an author makes their detective overstate the abilities of their quarry in order to raise the stakes, but it’s pretty difficult to disagree with Kane’s summation here that:
“[Y]ou can combat most criminals with pretty dull weapons and come off victorious. But now and again one appears who threatens to overmatch you. Then you can draw your keenest blade and feel that the fight’s a fair one. … We’ll have to do our best, or we’re sunk.”