#499: Cat’s Paw (1931) by Roger Scarlett

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Dear Elderly Patriarchs Who Hold the Purse-Strings and Delight in Making Everyone Jump and Dance on Cue: you’d live a lot longer if you stopped gathering your slavishly pecuniary-minded families around you before announcing a surprise amendment to their financial situations.  Weren’t you supposed to be captains of industry at some point?  Don’t your creators lay it on a bit thick with your business acumen, your cut-and-thrust tactics, and the rapier-like intelligence that resulted in you rising to the top?  Gordon’s beer, man, exercise a little nouse; at least change the will and then tell them…

And so Martin Greenough gathers his nephews — the self-pitying alcoholic George, the boorishly blunt Hutchinson, the smoothly charming Francis, and the combatative favourite Blackstone — to his Bostonian mansion in the days preceding his 75th birthday and, after the sort of spitefully petulant game-playing that marks his card as surely as anything else, tells them that they will no longer be able to rely on his handouts to survive.  That ‘Cousin Mart’ himself is the very architect of their reliance — George’s sister Anne has been outcast since evidence emerged of her investing some of the stipend Martin allowed her — is simply part and parcel of the man.  And his timing, dropping the annoucement at dinner when Blackstone has brought his new fiancée along to meet the family, is an equally calculated piece of antagonism.  But this time it will not stand: before the sun rises on the remnants of the celebratory birthday fireworks, one of the eight people in the house will have shot Martin Greenough dead.

This third work by Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page feels like a very conscious deviation both structurally and tonally from their first brace of mansion-set murder mysteries.  The first half of the book is taken up with observing the lion in its den, and while for my tastes the repeated examples of Cousin Mart’s piques of manipulative pettifoggery go on a bit — insisting on always being the first in a room, forcing other people to move from bright hallways to darkened studies for meetings so as to disorient them, always goading and poking and insinuating his displeasure — it does capture the strained atmopshere beautifully.  I also can’t help but feel that this choking mist of Cousin Mart pervading all corners of all events is intended as a veil for a few assumptions into which Blair and Page wish to lead you…and their success depends entirely on how willing you are to submit to the tactic.  For my part, I grew a little bored of the repeating refrain and so had time to question a couple of key developments, but your mileage will doubtless vary.

Cometh the fireworks, cometh the murder, and cometh Detective Sergeant Moran and Constable McBeath, as gloriously casual a double-act as you’ll ever encounter: McBeath’s borderline-rebellious lack of airs and graces when dealing with his superior officer a quiet delight.  Moran, too, brings his own ideals to proceedings: dismissing the grief of Cousin Mart’s housekeeper/lover Edith Warden because it is “slurred…with impropriety” and keen to jump at the merest shadow of suspicion or implication — he’s not quite a parody, there’s a little too much investment in his charatcer for that, but he’s not too far off.  And once the stage is finally set for Detective Inspector Kane (I’m still pretty sure he’s not actually been given a first name in the prose of this triumvirate) to swan in for the final 50 pages and lay it all bare we have everything we need to piece together the skein.

Well, no, almost everything.  There’s a staggeringly late declaration of an important clue that’s all the more frustrating for the potential to’ve mentioed it sooner, but apart from that it’s difficult to fault Kane’s investigation and the way supposition is mixed in with fact and innuendo.  A few servings must be swallowed to be led completely astray, and I’d say of the three key ideas highlighted by Kane as the key to the puzzle only one got past me, but I didn’t catch the killer, and the Queen-esque near-final line reveal is a beautifully brutal touch on which to end.  The writing, too, is notably more polished from their (not-unpolished) previous brace, with these people really feeling like people — good heavens, if you don’t feel for Blackstone’s fiancée Stella, or for Hutchinson’s wife Amelia and the way her “little weakness” is treated then there might be a hole in your chest — and the lingering, too-oppressive mood only really intruding when you realise how perfectly brilliant many of the compact turns of phrase typically are:

After a bad night, they had awakened to a world removed from death and violence by the passage of only six or seven hours and the serving of their ordinary breakfasts.

What emerges is a smart, far-from-abstruse plot with a keenly-realised cast, a clever solution, and only a couple of stains upon its character (I’m sorry, I just can’t condone that late clue…).  Easily my favourite of the three Scarletts I’ve read to date, and with the highly-regarded Murder Among the Angells (1932) up next there’s a chance it’s not even the best of the five books Blair and Page wrote together.  When GAD reprints are producing books of this standard, we have a great deal for which to be thankful.

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See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Cat’s Paw has a pleasing, labyrinthine plot with a policeman sleuth, who acts as an intuitive armchair detective, while sifting through a pile of physical clues, but the story cheated itself of a place in the first-ranks by pawning one of the vital clues and hiding up its sleeve. A real shame. However, the book is still a good read with enough twists, turns and clues to satisfy the pure, plot-driven readers, who love Van Dine and Queen, but will probably also be slightly annoyed that it (unnecessarily) withheld an important piece of information from them. So make of that what you will.

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The Roger Scarlett mysteries of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, published by Coachwhip Publications:

Volume 1:

1. The Beacon Hill Murders (1930)
2. The Back Bay Murders (1930)

Volume 2:

3. Cat’s Paw (1931)
4. Murder Among the Angells (1932)

Volume 3:

5. In the First Degree (1933)

6 thoughts on “#499: Cat’s Paw (1931) by Roger Scarlett

    • That would, indeed, be my recommendation. And given that it’s in a volume with Murder Among the Angells — and TomCat and Ho-Ling speak so favourably of that one — it’s virtually guaranteed to be a worthwhile investment.

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  1. Well, I guess the weather in Hell is a little bit chilly today, because we’re in complete agreement with each other! This is a smart detective story with a good cast of characters, but not an outright classic on account of unfairly withholding the vital clue until the very end.

    Anway, you’ll absolutely hate The Door Between. The solution is not only disappointing, but even more ridiculous than the answer to the impossible vanishing of the murder weapon in The American Gun Mystery. And very unfair. So enjoy your latest foray into Ellery Queen! 😀

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    • …and our agreement here bodes even better for my opinion of Murder Among the Angells, so that’s exciting.

      As for The Door Between…well, if it’s that bad, maybe the horribly dense, overstuffed First Period stuff will seem like nirvana as a result. If it send me reeling for the halcyon days of The Dutch Shoe Mystery then maybe something will have been achieved after all…

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  2. Glad to hear that you liked this one. I’m still going to start with Murder Among the Angells, but I suspect I’ll end up tracking down the other two books in this series. Speaking of the series – am I the only one who finds the texture of this Coachwhip cover to be repulsive to the touch?

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    • You may not be the only one, but I’m not there with you — I think these editions are gorgeous physical objects, Horses and course and all that, however.

      Angells…soon-ish.

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