#715: The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer [a.p.a. by Peter Antony]

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The one thing a book cannot guard against is the expectations that build up around it — and the rarer a book proves to be, the more apocryphal its contents, the higher those expectations tend to rise. The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer has been staggeringly unobtainable for decades now and, with no less an authority than Robert Adey promising “a brilliant new solution” for its locked room murder, had much to live up to. We can’t blame the book for the solution not being new — not even slightly, Bob — but we can blame it for the flaws that disappointingly crop up in several key regards.

The first half is fun, if a little muddled: figures climbing in and out of the windows of a seaside hotel, a dead body in a blood-soaked room where the door and window — having provided both ingress and egress for at least two people only moments before — both locked, and the eponymous young lady found in the stated location. Cue Mr. Verity, an amateur sleuth in the self-aware mould, who through acquaintance with the police is able to remain on the scene and at the heart of proceedings after having discovered the murder and apprehended at least one of the suspects in the opening chapter.

The expected trappings are all in place, then, and Shaffer has a good line here and there with some trenchant observations and the odd knowing description that puts a foot into the “comedic crime” category, possibly as a way of excusing the infelicities of the second half. A council of war is called just before the halfway stage, a solution proposed that covers the possibilities and is then rejected for no reason other than Shaffer doesn’t want it to be the answer — I do not understand why the contents of that telephone call are so damaging to the solution built up at this stage — and we embark on the second half of the book.

The best I can say about the second half of The Woman in the Wardrobe is that it definitely exists. The problems of the first half are editorial and minor in a manner that can be excused — I’m really not a fan of the overly twee drawings of the main characters, least of all when Mr. Cunningham is described as “a man of about forty” (my age!) and appears solidly two decades older in the sketch given — but the second half is simply all over the place. It’s clear that this would have been at best a good novella, or ideally a superb short story, and has simply been padded and then padded again to make 180 pages of text so that it technically qualifies as a novel (though The Dead Shall be Raised (1942) by George Bellairs is a similar length and only got published as half of a twofer in this same series, so for some reason that didn’t qualify as a novel).

Take Richard Tudor — please, take him, and throw him literally anywhere — who is amusing at his first appearance (“I have the documents to prove it!”), surplus to requirements at his second, and a tedious anchor on the narrative thereafter. Does it serve any purpose that he goes with Mr. Verity to the post office so Verity can fail to send a telegram to Syria? No. Is it even interesting? No. Ask these two questions of most characters and events in the second half and you get the same answers. There’s also the small matter of gunshots apparently being silent or deafening as the plot requires and, possibly the thing I hate most about this style of puzzle plot, the way in which blood knows how to behaves and where to appear so as to save the big surprise of the solution for the final pages (John Dickson Carr was guilty of this, too, so this isn’t just me deliberately picking fault with Shaffer).

And that solution is itself problematic, not least because the midway answer is perfectly valid and, if you want to dismiss that, only one other sequence of events will explain the situation. And, while for the none-more-well-versed Adey not to recognise this solution as simply three old tropes piled atop each other isn’t the book’s fault, it’s a shame that the very workable first solution is discarded for what turns out to be the false adult of three kids on each others’ shoulders in an overcoat. And, when all’s said and done, it’s not really worth the piling of coincidences required to get us there, some of which become too contrived for even the Carry On… movies.

Before anyone gets too defensive on the grounds of “Well, it’s is a comic crime novel, you know” I’d like to point out that for all the well-handled comedy in the works of Edmund Crispin his plots still exercised internal logic. As a fan of the puzzle novel, and the classic detective novel in particular, reading The Woman in the Wardrobe was honestly the first time that I could understand someone in the 1950s picking up that type of book and simply finding it wearying and unappealing — stuffed full of the farcical elements that would end up so popular on stage and screen, but inordinately difficult to reconcile with a world that was surely bored of this sort of thing by now. There’s no sense of time or place, and the unstructured meander to the final revelations seems curiously devoid of purpose…it belongs nowhere, and brings nothing interesting to a genre that has every right to expect more. It feels very much a case of an author having a great time and not caring if the audience is in on the joke.

However, once again it seems that practically everyone else who has reviewed this book disagrees with me, and so perhaps I’m the one who’s missing something. I can’t begin to tell you how delighted I am that I was able to read this for a mere £8.99 — in fact, I think Watersontes had 25% off the price, so I paid even less than that — rather than the hundreds and hundreds of money it would have otherwise cost me (well, no, it wouldn’t, because I can’t afford those prices, but you get my point), and I’m a firm fan of reading a book and knowing it’s not to my liking over decades of it remaining unobtainable and so never knowing. The Shaffer brothers apparently resisted plenty of efforts to get their three detective novels reprinted over the years, and it would be marvellous to see How Doth the Little Crocodile (1952) and Withered Murder (1955) follow in due course despite the disappointment I experienced here. I mean, things can only get better after this, right?

~

See also

John @ Pretty Sinister: Overall, this is a fine pastiche of the traditional detective novel. So well done in style and genre technique I got faint whiffs of classic authors in the plotting of Shaffer’s book. Whether or not any or all of them were inspirations for The Woman in the Wardrobe I leave to your imagination. 

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Woman in the Wardrobe is a very short, tautly written story with the page-count padded out with some nice sketches of the main characters by Nicolas Bentley. So it really had no right to be anything more than a comedic curiosity, but the explanation to the locked room, in combination with the identity to the murderer, turned it into an unmitigated classic. A superb and truly original locked room mystery!

36 thoughts on “#715: The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer [a.p.a. by Peter Antony]

  1. I share many of your reservations about this one, particularly with regards the plotting of the locked room, though I was more receptive to some of the comedic elements than you were which I found more amusing than hilarious. They are mostly a distraction from the main thrust of the plot though and feel suspiciously like padding.
    That being said, the first third of the book did build up a lot of goodwill from me and the whole thing feels so quick and breezy that I enjoyed the book, even when parts of the plotting frustrated me.

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    • Up to the (overturned) first solution, it’s enjoyable enough — light, undemanding, slightly confusing in its order of events, but passable. But the difficulties in turning this into a novel(la) length story become very apparent in the second half, where the humour goes out of the jokes, the setups become increasingly “Who’s on first base” and the variation in tone flies so far from the opening chapters that it felt to me that there was never any really understanding of how to fill out the time until the solution.

      But, yes, there are some good ideas, and doubtless the later books — which both brothers had a hand in — are an improvement. Whether we’ll ever see them, well, that’s another matter altogether…

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          • It does seem to have been reviewed pretty positively. I thought I read somewhere that the other two would be harder in terms of the rights but I would love to have imagined that!

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            • I think two authors being involved makes the rights more complex. Especially if they’re deceased and the rights have passed on to potentially multiple family members. That’s the impression I get, anyway, but my understanding of that side of things is pretty ropey…or, indeed, just non-existent 🙂

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  2. I bought this completely blind as a preorder and it remains on the shelf. I’ve read some of those positive reviews but there were alarm bells ringing faintly when I became aware of the humorous element – I don’t really get on well with ironic detective stories.
    Now that I’ve read your comments about the plotting and the padding, I can see this remaining on the shelf for a whole lot longer.

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    • You never know, Colin, this might be the farcical detective story you’ve been looking for…! If you imagine pauses in the dialogue for audience laughter it kinda works, but it is far too long in my opinion, and Shaffer loves Richard Tudor a little too much…

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        • Yeah, Toyshop is an odd one, isn’t it? I think it’s something we all read fairly early in our GADing about and are struck by how frivolous and fun and capering it is…and then when you return to it after seeing the likes of Berkeley, etc do really good, inventive work in the genre Toyshop becomes somewhat strung together and loose by comparison. As a flight of imaginative plotting it’s superb, and bows to no-one in the application of its own internal reasoning, but perhaps we all get rather carried away over its credentials because we read it so early and because there’s so little comic crime that commands the same reputation.

          Dunno where I’m going with this, I just feel your pain over TMT 🙂

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  3. I’ve been hoping to come across a copy of one if these books for decades too. Sorry it didn’t stand up to the “hype” – but also, was this written by just Peter or by his twin too? They way you have written this confused me JJ 😉

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    • The Woman in the Wardrobe was written by just Peter alone, but the brothers collaborated on the other two detective novels they put out. To my understanding, Mr. Verity is also the sleuth in How Doth the Little Crocodile and, since that was published as “by Peter Antony”, there’s a chance this may have been reissued with that attribution so that readers realised it was in the same series.

      Withered Murder is, I believe, published as “by A. & P. Shaffer” — lord alone knows why, I’m sure there’s a good reason. “Peter Antony” would have surely sufficed, since we’re not unused to authors writing books with different sleuths…maybe they were more famous by that point and the publishers wanted to capitalise on the name recognition?

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  4. I’m very glad that I wasn’t the only person who found this disappointing.

    If my memory serves me correctly, Withered Murder was reprinted by Gollancz relatively recently – I read a library copy, and found it rather better that this one. I think I read that the sleuth (named Fathom, I think?) is effectively the same person as Verity but with a new name, for some reason.

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    • Nice to see there’s an element of wordplay in their naming, at least. I mean, I’m not exactly in love with it — feels like something designed to, again, get a laugh out of an audience when introduced on stage — but it’s pleasing to see them commit to it and so evidently get a certain measure of pleasure from it. Little touches like this, that speak of an author enjoying themselves, are always nice.

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  5. Of course you post this just days after one of my family members orders this for me for Christmas…

    It is interesting how we (as in, at least me) can build these difficult to obtain books into something of legend, in part because they show up on a well regarded list, but also because we just can’t track them down. The Sleeping Bacchus, Into Thin Air, The Death of Laurence Vining, The Shade of Time, The Malinsay Massacre… these are our waning hopes of fulfilling the fantasy of one last [insert 20 book titles by John Dickson Carr], The Rim of the Pit, or Whistle Up the Devil. Yeah, it’s an unfair expectation to live up to, but we still do it.

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    • Is…is Christmas earlier in the US? Or are you guys just, like, super-organised?

      The reputation a book has, or is perceived to have, is all the more frustrating when you read some that live up to it: for me Rim of the Pit and Whistle Up the Devil were exactly what I expected them to be. Because then you read others and they just…don’t work. Now, of course, some people will love TWitW and fail to see the fuss about WUtD, which makes a mockery of the idea of there being a universal standard of brilliance…but we still can’t help ourselves getting excited about certain titles, can we?

      This is why, to a certain extent, I have learned to avoid reviews of books I want to read — partly because three or four reviews, when put together, can result in spoilers, and partly because it’s so lovely when something just works and takes you completely by surprise with how magnificent it is…and then I go and write a lauditory review about it, and get everyone else’s hopes up and so become part of the problem 🙂

      And then the harder a book is to find, the more excited we can’t help but get about it — I’ve tracked down a copy of Anthony Lejeune’s Mr. Diabolo after several years of looking, and I’m psyched…despite not having read a single review and not even being able to recall where I first heard of it.

      The only sane way out of this seems to be to stop reading books, right? That way nothing gets our hopes up and nothing is disappointing.

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      • Trust me, I don’t do my shopping until at least two panic-stricken days beforehand.

        I do think half the fun of tracking these books down is that legend. And then I finally get my hands on them… and they sit in a stack of books for six months. It’s funny how book buying has that delayed satisfaction compared to music or a movie. You get all excited to buy a book, you finally get your hands on it, and then you just kind of let it sit there. Even in the rare case where I immediately read a recent acquisition, it’s still after I finish what I’m currently working through, which can take time.

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        • Don’t get too hyped for The Shade of Time. It’s not a terribly as a locked room mystery and the trick is an interesting variation on a very well-known impossible crime novel, but it’s much more in the line with the pulp-style mysteries by John Russell Fearn. The Death of Laurence Vining is a highlight of the 1920s locked room mysteries and The Sleeping Bacchus is a fun crime caper like Norman Berrow’s The Three Tiers of Fantasy. I haven’t read Into Thin Air or The Malinsay Massacre.

          I try not to be unreasonably excited and elevate this obscure titles to legendary status (unless they come from Japan), but I’ve unjustifiable high expectations William F. Temple’s The Dangerous Edge. Another caper with an Arsène Lupin/Kaitou KID-like villain who’s responsible for a series of impossible thefts and disappearances. Surely, there’s has to be an amazing how a man seen scaling a wall can vanish into thin air or how a Crusader’s Shield disappeared from a glass cabinet in the presence of witnesses. The Dangerous Edge has to be unsung classic, but secondhand copies are scarce and nobody seem to have any plans to reprint it.

          Joseph B. Carr’s The Man with Bathed Breath comes recommended as an alternative classic and bizarro world John Dickson Carr.

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            • Don’t panic! Our disagreement about The Woman in the Wardrobe kind of balances things out, but we have to be careful now. Another agreement could trigger a super volcanic eruption or worse.

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          • Man, in a single week both you and JJ have tempered my expectations for The Shade of Time! It was my one big hope! It was my…. wait a minute… you both agreed? Now does the universe turn inside out?

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            • Oh, god, TC, Ben’s right — we agree on the pedestrian nature of The Shade of Time. Wh…what happens now? I feel dizzy, and I seem to be f a d i n g a w a y

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  6. Sorry to hear this one didn’t work for you, but then again, you’re known to resist enjoyment and this was to be expected. I’m also at peace that you’ll probably one-star The Death of Laurence Vinning. 🙂

    I see your point and you’re right that a comedic mystery can be funny and exercise internal logic, but I’ve always been more lenient towards comedic mysteries. And you’re dead wrong about the locked room-trick. The part I (and others) admire is (ROT13) gung gur ivpgvz jnf xvyyrq ol gur qrgrpgvir jura ur fubg gur ybpx bs gur qbbe. Yes, there’s some familiarity about the other components of the locked room-trick, but that part was a stroke of genius. It’s shortness ensures the story doesn’t overstay its welcome/starts beating a dead horse. I can’t hate it.

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    • I’m very aware of what people like about the trick, but it’s not the original conceit it seems to be paraded as: it’s merely a simplified version of a similar idea from a novel published about a decade earlier. It’s a novel a lot of people have read, too.

      And, hey, give me a copy of The Death of Laurence Vining and I’ll tell you exactly how bad it is 🙂

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  7. Oh thank goodness! I thought I was the only one in the universe who could not see what a fabulous book this was!

    I was drawn in by the opening chapters—which I did find very humorous. But the remaining chapters left me befuddled and mildly irritated. Shaffer flitted from one suspect to another without once convincing me that any one of them was guilty.

    The solution was ingenious—and could have resulted in a dropping end. Instead, it just petered out and was rather ordinary.

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    • Ha; as a general rule, if really dislike a book that majority feeling is positive about, I’ve probably disliked it. I’d like this to be because I’m edgy and cool and all counter-culture and the like, but it’s mainly because even I haven’t quite figured out what I am looking for sometimes: for a plot-fiend like me, a lack of character can really irritate, and too strait-laced and pompous a tome will typically have me snoring…until it doesn’t because of the fascination wrought by the plot (and, y’know, let’s not let character get in the way of that).

      Humour is great until it’s the wrong kind of humour, and too little of the right kind is to be equally lamented. I get about four emails a year accusing me of being a racist because I fail to address that aspect of the books I read — even though I, y’know, have — and I sincerely hate that that’s an element of a era’s writing I otherwise love so much, in the same way that the lazy ‘wisdom’ thrown around about mental illness is equally reductive and insulting. And yet I spend hours and hours and hours reading and writing about and then tracking down more examples of this sort of thing. And it’s not always cheap!

      What’m I doing, Laurie? None of this makes any sense!

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      • I for one appreciate the input an analysis from reviewers/bloggers such as you. Whenever I need a little reading inspiration I turn to your archives, TomCat’s Muniments Room, Kate’s Past Hearings, and others that are too numerous to list. I would never have discovered Crofts or Freeman, and definitely not Yokomizo😉

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  8. Thanks for the review. 😭 I was hoping this would turn out to be a good one – but looks like even if my hopes aren’t dashed, they’d need to be tempered. I actually have “Crocodile” sitting on my shelf, but I’ve also heard it isn’t Shaffer’s strongest work. 🐊 Looks like we can only hope for “Withered Murder” to be republished soon!

    Given the confluence of our opinions recently, for “Owner Lies Dead”, I guess I’d probably be wise to temper my expectations. Then again, we diverged quite wildly on “Plague Court”. 😖

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    • Our confluence of opinions on The Owner Lies Dead might not count for much here, however, as they are very different types of book — this is a far lighter affair, and so long as you’re prepared for it to be light and padded you might have a better time of it than I did.

      I just hate padding in my detective/crime/whatever stories so much! Why write something that doesn’t actively contribute to the world or the situation? Gaaaahh!!

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  9. Can’t comment on the rest, but take heart in the fact that forty-year-olds nowadays are nothing like forty-year-olds at the time this was written. We all behave much more childlike nowadays (at least, that’s what forty-year-olds of that time would say).

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