#532: Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Roger Scarlett

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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.

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See also

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.

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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)

14 thoughts on “#532: Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Roger Scarlett

  1. Oh. 😕 I left this as best-for-last. And now the fires of enthusiasm feel slightly dampened. Ah well. You might feel slightly encouraged to hear that the final Scarlett novel is quite good – I enjoyed it, and I think it’s possibly better than “Cat’s Paw”.

    Incidentally, my emails seem not to be getting through to your inbox – perhaps check and let me know? 😅

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    • Well, who knows — you may disagree with me 🙂 The simplicity of the plot here compared to the previous two doesn’t, in my mind, justify the length of the book, but the elevator murder is a distinct improvement on that Rhode/Dickson one…so there’s always that to look forward to.

      Thanks for the note about emails; a lot of stuff goes to my Junk folder and, as it’s around 500+ messages, I seldom have time or patience to sort through them. I shall check and get back to you.

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      • You might feel slightly encouraged to hear that the final Scarlett novel is quite good…

        I’m tempted to say JJ would probably dislike In the First Degree, because the plot hinges on something he notoriously hates. However, I also assumed he would love Murder Among the Angells. So he’ll probably call In the First Degree the exception that proves the rule and give it four or five stars.

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        • The late clue disclosure in Cat’s Paw should have out me right off, but that’s my favourite of the lot so far. So who knows?!

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  2. So, yeah, TomCat, another nail in the coffin of my credibility…

    The final nail was driven into the coffin when you missed that prominently displayed visual clue in The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case. Now we’re looking for a spot to bury your credibility. Do you have a preference? 🙂

    Well, you can’t really argue with personal taste since that’s what weighed Murder Among the Angells down to a second place on your list. Which is fine, I suppose, but what did you think of the locked elevator-trick? Did you recognize the core-idea of the trick, which would be reused many decades later, in a very different way, in a locked room mystery only the two of us seem to like. If you missed it, I can email you to avoid spoilers here.

    You’re really going to read Julian “Bloody” Symons next, you limey turncoat!?

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    • Bury me in a library. One with plenty of James Patterson, to teach me a lesson… 😂

      The elevator murder here is good, if feeling like something from a decade or so previously. If the novel you allude to isn’t one of those mentioned in the review, I’m afraid you’ll have to give my leaky memory a knock. Still reeling from the surprise that we agree on something, which you think would narrow it down, but nope.

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  3. Besides your assessment of this book, I also learned a new word from your review: “eldritch”. Until now, I knew this only as the last name of the singer of The Sisters of Mercy, and I did not know it had any specific meaning. See, even if your credibility is shot, your reviews are still being appreciated!

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  4. I was a bit shocked when I saw your rating for this one, especially given how positively you viewed the previous entries. I think like everyone one else, I somehow had it in my mind that this was the best of the bunch. I have the collection of this one and Cat’s Paw, and had intended to jump directly to Murder Among the Angells, but perhaps now I’ll just read the two books in order. That is, of course, if I can ever get around to starting it – I’m not a fan of the form factor of two novels within a single book.

    For the record, I still enjoy the “how” of Fatal Decent. It is by no means Carr’s best, but it is a delightfully clever little bit. There was another solution proposed in the book that I liked more, but I’m still a fan.

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    • Of the two two-book collections — and, like you, I’m not a fan of that format, but if it gets stuff back in print then I can live with it — I’d say this is the one to have. The first two books are very good, and the improvement from Bay Bay Murders to Beacon Hill Murders (or is it the other way round…?) is fabulous. Both contain, by by reckoning, a three-star and a four-star book, but Angells is the better three-star title if only because those opening five or six chapters are simply manna from the GAD gods (the gads?). Had Page and Blair kept up that sort of form, this would be one of the best GAD titles from the 1930s — it’s that high a standard.

      But, such standards are difficult to maintain, as we’ve all seen time and again: a great start dribbles off, or a mediocre start suddenly springs to life, or a blistering ending rears up out of nowhere. I’d argue, and I really don’t mean this to sound hyper-critical, that is was this precise inability to maintain this focus that led to them a) only writing one more book and b) being largely forgotten.

      Fatal Descent, I have to say, is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember loving the midway solution and being soooo boooooored by the final one…and thinking it infinitely inferior. But as to details — nup, I got nothin’. Doubtless it’s clever, those two gents writing together was always going to be damn clever, but the real intelligence would have been to stop halfway through and make it a novella…is my impression. One of these days I’ll finally track down a copy of my very own and be able to reread it; for the meantime, I’m happy for it to be remembered simply as fatally flawed, and maybe I can get into the why in about a decade from now.

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