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?
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…
For this blog alone — that is, discounting books I manage to fit in which do not feature on here — my reading has in recent weeks seen a degree of decade-hopping it doesn’t normally achieve: 1971, 1948, 2011, 1938, 2018, 1940, 1939, 2018 and now 1932. The upshot of this time travel is a reassurance that I’m still more of a fan of the legitimate 1930s style of murder mystery than I am its more modern second cousin. Even the flaws in this type of story are more enjoyable, partly I suppose because (and it bears repeating) of just how damn difficult a well-clewed puzzle plot is to write. As here, the first swing often makes up in enthusiasm for what it lacks in finesse.
Whatever I thought of this book, I was committed to reading more of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s Roger Scarlett mysteries as I had already bought volume 2 of the Coachwhip reissues — comprising the novels Cat’s Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angells (1932). Impetuous? I prefer optimistic: the promise on display in their debut augured well for their future, and I believed remuneration would be found somewhere in these pages. So it’s either my own foresight or my stubborn inability to admit a mistake that sees me having a hugely enjoyable time with this one…I shall leave it to the reader to choose.
The classic GAD puzzle plot being the complex and obstreperous beast it is, we should not be surprised that sometimes it took two brains to wrestle in into readable shape (under a single name so as to simplify things) — Ellery Queen, Francis Beeding, Kelley Roos, Patrick Quentin, etc. Now, thanks to the work of Coachwhip and Curtis Evans, we can all add another collaborative nom de plume to our libraries with Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s Roger Scarlett and their Boston-set country house conundra. And, as with their distinguished kin, they prove to have an equally troublesome first swing at this while also showing a huge amount of promise.
Fellow GAD blogger Noah Stewart has in the past talked about intertextuality in detective fiction, part of which is how each mystery’s solution feeds into a general awareness of all other mysteries and their solutions. Essentially, reading detective fiction is then a game: has the author been able to mislead you about the solution? And the more you read, the harder this game becomes for these authors, especially as many of them wrote their books close to a century ago and so don’t really get the right of response where later developments in the field are concerned. The best GAD plots stand up to all subsequent attempts to innovate, and remain surprising.