TomCat has been urging me to read this fourth novel from Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s ‘Roger Scarlett’ nom de plume for a while now, not least on account of our shared enthusiasm for impossible crimes. But I’m a stickler for my Ways and so have worked my way to it chronologically, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the first three novels improve in style, scope, scheme, and substance from book to book. Here again, then, is another murder amidst a tightly-packed coterie of suspects in one of Boston’s mansions, with again enough cross-purposes, desires, and hidden intentions to make any one of them a killer…so whodunnit?
The first five chapters are a masterpiece of laying foundations, introducing characters, providing motives, and seeding possible false leads that the reader is liable to think of themselves (the conversation between the cook and the maid that ends chapter 5 was a poke in the eye for a favourite theory of mine…). The setup is easily the most arresting of the Scarlett books so far, too: septuagenarian brothers Carolus and Darius Angell — the first measured in everything, the second impulsive and emotional at the drop of a hat — living each in his own half of their father’s L-shaped mansion, each desperately trying to outlive the other on account of the Old Man’s will, which leaves everything to the survivor and his heirs. Enter Mr. Underwood — actually lawyering for a change — as Darius seeks a binding agreement with his twin to provide for the other’s children no matter who dies first, and before anything can be put on paper murder intrudes.
The murder sees Inspector Norton Kane — I could be wrong, but I think this is the first time his forename is given in a book — descend (alas, no McBeath this time) and start to pick through the suspects and their movements: Carolus’ slightly downtrodden adopted children Carl and Karen, Karen’s devoted husband Whitney, Darius’ chalk-and-cheese sons — the debonair ladies’ man David and the stolid, slightly eldritch Peter — and their disapproving aunt Susan Codman. With money as the motive, and so much of this book revolved around where The Money is going to go that it gets a little tedious, one of these is a killer, and when a second murder intrudes, with significant efforts made in placing the blame on a mysterious outsider, Kane and Underwood will have their work cut out for them.
I’ll be honest, I preferred the second and third Scarlett novels, The Back Bay Murders (1930) and Cat’s Paw (1931), to this one. Here, the cast never quite come to life, and while the schemes adopted are occasionally very clever — see the theft of the legal document Underwood draws up following that first murder — it’s simply a lot of conversation without much new information being added past the end of chapter 8. The setup of the house is delightfully unusual, and it’s in part on account of this that I can see why, as Ho-Ling as detailed, this book became quite a big deal in the East: you only need look at the architectural innovations of The Decagon House Murders (2007, tr. 2015) by Yukito Ayatsuji, Death in the House of Rain (2006, tr. 2017) by Szu-Yen Lin or The 8 Mansion Murders (1989, tr. 2018) by Takemaru Abiko to see how this would play into that sort of relational geographic playfulness which seems more evident in works from that part of the world (though, sure, I’m working from a small sample size…oh, wait there’s also ‘The Locked House of Pythagoras’ (2011, tr. 2013) and, arguably, ‘The Running Dead’ (1985, tr. 2017) by Soji Shimada). And yet, aside from the elevator between the houses in which the second, impossible murder occurs (and which appear far easier to control that the one Ken Holt and Sandy Allen would use 18 years later), it’s never really exploited in a way that has any meaning.
There are nine maps or diagrams showing the layout of various floors and rooms, and you honestly don’t need any of them. They’re nice, sure, I love me a crime scene diagram, but, woo, do they ever feel redundant — almost a way to break up the various conversations where Kane says something, everyone reacts in the expected way, and then he nods knowingly and says it’s helped him progress his thinking. If anything, moving between the two halves of the house just becomes a little wearying, especially as it’s used for one of the most transparent imitation stunts yet deployed. This middle section is a little hard work, as the narrative could do with something more than David and Karen’s affair — disclosed in the very first chapter, so that’s not a spoiler — to provide some intrigue. Everyone else just sort of…is there and says stuff.
Things liven up with the second death, and for a while it’s on a good keel — the workings of that elevator-set stabbing are, thankfully, revealed with far less tedium than the Carter Dickson/John Rhode collaboration Drop to His Death, a.k.a. Fatal Descent (1939), and some intelligent discussion is had concerning its workings. From here, the small matter of thievery is solved by Kane following an apparent off-page divine intervention (we’re never told how he knew who the guilty party was), and the killer is caught through a scheme that requires everyone to be told of something that the most cowardly member of the cast has been threatened with death if they reveal — and I just don’t believe they would reveal it, or that the killer could have known they’d reveal it and that the course of action they need implemented would have therefore resulted. To both eat your cake and have it too seems the order of the day, and all that cake isn’t going to be easy to swallow.
So, well, this is a mixed bag. It starts brilliantly, but the spark goes out of it very suddenly, as if Blair and Page concocted this wonderful setup and then their muse deserted them and they lost their enthusiasm to see it through with a plot of equal excitement. There does eventually turn out to be a good, if somewhat simplistic, motive behind it all, and when it flies it really flies, but this is a salutary lesson in the need for consistency in your novel where tone, pacing, intrigue, and plot development are concerned. And, hey, proportionally few books did it brilliantly, and so coming in second best is no shame; I’d’ve liked to like this more, but for my tastes the faults weigh it down too greatly to be excused.
So, yeah, TomCat, another nail in the coffin of my credibility…there would appear to be no hope for me.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The elevator cannot descend, or rise, when any of the doors of the three floors are open and the trapdoor in the ceiling opens on a thick carpet of unbroken dust. The elevator went straight down from the third floor without stopping and there wasn’t even room in the elevator, entirely filled by the wheelchair, for a second person, but, somehow, someone still managed to murder the old man. Kane and Underwood do some pleasant theorizing as they eliminate the possibilities, one by one, before Kane eventually hits upon the solution.
Ho-Ling @ The Case-Files of Ho-Ling: The puzzle plot is constructed very neatly, with enough clues to point to the murderer (the main hint pointing at the criminal is a nice one, reminding me of some stories in Conan and Furuhata Ninzaburou). Like I said, the murderer had some lucky breaks IMHO, but nothing game-breaking. The motive is done quite nicely well and in fact, besides the points mentioned above, I have no real complaints about the plot of Murder Among the Angells. It’s a nicely constructed mansion-story that is sure to entertain readers.
The Roger Scarlett mysteries of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, published by Coachwhip Publications: