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.”
The second murder — no spoiler, that, it’s in the title — is phenomenally clever, and committed in such a way that had me looking in completely the wrong direction. It’s true that Kane still has a habit of drawing meaningful data and clues from conversations had off-page, but it’s also true that the clewing we do see is far fairer than in The Beacon Hill Murders, and has more than a shade of Christie in its “details gleaned from conversation” aspect. I’ll admit to putting several things together and narrowing the pool down to three suspects…but I’ll also admit to being thoroughly flummoxed when the guilty party turned out to be a fourth I’d discounted on account of a snazzy piece of misdirection Blair and Page rolled out the red carpet for. Man, I should have known better. I may never be allowed to show my face in these hallowed halls ever again.
Motive-wise I can see people having problems with this, but personally I enjoyed the conflation of wider themes and machinations that tied into the why. Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s novel and something I’ll remember several years from now. Indeed, the oddness of it is something that commends the book to me, and the slightly-askew view it brings to this genre is welcome when you read as much of this sort of thing as I do (and many of my readers read far more than I do). It’s unusual and accomplished enough that you can understand someone plagiarising it with a staggering blatancy examined in Curtis Evans’ introduction, a summary of which — complete with speculative developments in the comments — can be found here on his blog.
So a stronger plot, a more interesting cast, a few more surprises, and a real structural improvement over their debut — this definitely counts as a win. My one hope now is that Blair and Page improve their declaration of clues in the books to come, and given the efforts undertaken here I see no reason to assume that won’t also be addressed. Man, I’m going to fall in love with these books, aren’t I? And there are only three of them left, too. Typical…
Ho-Ling Wong: If I had to differentiate the two books however, I’d say The Beacon Hill Murders is the one that’ll make a better impression overall, but it does feature a far smaller cast and a very limited setting. The Back Bay Murders features a more varied cast and is arguably more intricately plotted, but many of the plot elements are also rather obvious to the reader, and the reason for the murders is also quite weak compared to that of The Beacon Hill Murders.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: I think that whilst Underwood is present throughout the story, he does not have a lot of presence – which is actually a good thing as it means any of his more annoying traits are kept well hidden. Also as with the first book the pacing is strong and keeps things moving quickly. One thing that I did find intriguing though was that both books ended incredibly abruptly. Once the solution has been delivered, the stories terminate after a closing remark by Kane, the narrative has no interest in telling us what happened to remaining suspects, but then I don’t think these stories foster that sort of character interest. Yet surprisingly this did not dampen my enthusiasm for this second book, as I thought it might have done.
The Roger Scarlett mysteries of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, published by Coachwhip Publications: