So, how best to explore The Malinsay Massacre (1938) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links?
We begin with a surprising touch of verisimilitude: a letter from Wheatley and Links appealing to Lieutenant Schwab of the New York City Police Department for another set of clues to a mystery “suitable for publication in the same way” as the first two entries in the series.
No writer can compete with real life, and no story our imagination could conceive would have the stamp of veracity of the tales told by the documents and clues collected by you in those two cases.
Schwab’s reply has about it the tantalising hints of Dr. Watson’s unwritten cases of Sherlock Holmes (“Another of my cases was solved after months of fruitless investigation by my studying a chair for twenty-two hours on end.”) before turning to the massacre (“believe me, the word is not too strong”) involving George, the Fifth Earl of Malinsay, in, as luck would have it, nearby Scotland. Solved by the current Earl, whom Schwab credits with a “far more brilliant deductive mind than mine”, permission for the undertaking is sought and granted, and the documents thus enclosed.
Things kick off proper, then, with my most-hated detective fiction trope: an overly-detailed family tree, this one from the early 17th century up to the Boer War era of the story itself. Comprising some 40+ names, I hope to high heaven won’t prove to be the crucial, case-breaking piece of intel needed; click on the image below to see this in all its glory — indeed, all the images in this post should be clickable for a closer look. However, that two people seem to share the Fifth Earl’s date of demise (only the year — 1899 — is given) at least bodes for a bloody time ahead. A handwritten letter from the Fifth Earl then implies the invoking of one of my favourite detective fiction tropes, a Terrible Will of Fiction, and a telegraph sheet in turn informs us of his death.
I’ll be honest, I found this opening sort of marvellous.
I’ve always loved the historical touches that bleed through between the lines of old detective fiction, and a letter in handwriting just on the right side of decipherability followed by something as era-appropriate as a telegraph form is the purest form of that implication…yes, I know the whole thing is false, but the feeling of verisimilitude cannot be denied. It’s even more enticing than a well-constructed escape room, in which the inevitable form of the puzzle’s progression strikes an unavoidably jarring note (why does this pirate ship have so many four-digit padlocks on it?). I’ve read probably thousands of detective novels, I’ve solved maybe half of them, and reading these opening few documents was the first time I felt like I was actually doing detection.
Enter Henry, George’s brother and now the Sixth Earl, who must confront the fact that his brother was murdered by someone close to him, and in a way that defies explanation: not just with no mark upon the body, but also with said body discovered locked in his bedroom, the windows nailed shut from the inside, and with a faithful retainer asleep outside the door. Henry’s handwriting is bloody terrible — see example above — so thankfully the transcribing of all his future missives into typescript has been achieved to save the eyesight and sanity of all amateur sleuths pitting their wits against Wheatley and Links’ ingenuity.
I don’t intend to turn this into a read-along, but it’s difficult at this stage to know what qualifies as a clue and what’s simply scene setting. An aside about a “wearisome illness”, vexation at the conduct of a “sly” maid-companion, an unfortunately-placed pile of timber…do I need to remember all of this? And, oh my life, there seem to be so many people to keep track of: a “factor”, a butler, a gardener, a housekeeper, a cook, the aforementioned maid-companion (also a distant relative of George’s much-despised wife Frederica), two housemaids, a Marx-spouting poacher, an artist, a journalist, a Swiss geologist, sundry denizens of the Isle of Malinsay on which this is unfolding…perhaps that’s no more than the average novel of detection, but that fact that each here is a name wafted in front of you before being snatched away proves a little disconcerting. For once, I could use a character list!
Slowly facts emerge: the cause of death — if not the mechanism — is disclosed, as are various relationships on the island: an Eternal Triangle, a betrothal betwixt servants that sees then snatching a stray hour when they can evade prying eyes and so might not be able to account for their movements, the possible return of that poacher who, viewing with disdain the “feudal despotism arising like titles and privileges from an antiquated system which, in another generation, would be abolished” (good luck with that prediction, mate) only left Malinsay because his parents, fearing the wrath of the Earl, kicked him out of their house. I’ve already forgotten half of the names of the people involved.
The only real flaw I can level at this, aside from it not containing a list of dramatis personae, is that in order to communicate the appropriate progression of discovery and ideas it leans rather heavily into Henry-as-narrator writing letter after letter to his nephew. Would it have been too much to mock up an autopsy sheet and have the cause of death circle to draw the eye? I understand that the intention might be to promise the reader that they have the relevant information — despite the assurance that any newspaper article not under a headline referring to Malinsay is “irrelevant matter”, I fear that something of importance might be contained in those reports about the Boer War (see above) — but if I wanted to read page after page after page of someone just telling me what had happened…well, there are novels for that.
A good place to break off this examination of the opening stages of this tragedy would be the commission of a second murder — a classic halfway gambit — apparently a poisoning, the details not yet known and the obvious guilty party suspected and therefore, we can say with more than the usual confidence, most likely innocent. The sixth Earl is clearly in for a torrid time in the pages ahead, and it’s to be wondered if this second death is as impossible as the first…but that will have to wait until next week. This first half of the mystery is intriguing, I’ll give Wheatley and Links that — they’ve done a good job of providing a linear narrative even if I wouldn’t mind a little more application of the old noggin when it came to discerning the precise value of each piece of information.
Doubtless those words will come back to haunt me in future when I put forward a solution that is disastrously incorrect. For now…a bientôt.