Dr John Bastow, it is claimed, was an unlikely murder victim. Apart from the fact that not only has he just prevented his daughter’s engagement to his colleague (who he sacked at the same time), but he also reveals to his best friend, Sir Felix Skrine, that he knows a secret about something… So in fact, he’s actually quite a likely murder victim and before you can say “lost classic”, he’s found shot to death inside his office, which is locked from the inside. The only clue – a message accusing “The Man With The Dark Beard” – only Bastow had no bearded acquaintances.
Enter Inspector Stoddart, a policeman with a good reputation, determined to track down the murderer. But events – including a second killing – seem to be pointing the arrow of suspicion at one person in particular. Is that person the guilty party, or is there something more devious going on?
Dean Street Press are getting a lot of coverage for their recent re-issues – in part, simply because they keep sending me (and other reviewers, I presume) such enticing reading material. Annie Haynes is the latest of their lost authors to get reprinted, both as ebook and normal book, with some delightful and distinctive covers. I saw a display of them in Heffers in Cambridge the other day and they looked very eye-catching indeed. Haynes wrote a dozen mystery novels, of which seven – the Inspector Stoddart and Inspector Furnival stories – are re-released at the moment. I reviewed the final Stoddart book – The Crystal Beads Murder – recently and now it’s time for the first one.
Another interesting delve into the past – it’s from 1928, a very late book from Ms Haynes – so from a time when there was really yet to be established a Golden Age style. Readers expecting an Agatha Christie clone might be surprised at what is going on here.
First off, there’s a parallel plot to the murder story that has more than a hefty dose of melodrama, namely Skrine’s determination to marry Hilary, Bastow’s daughter (despite being old enough to be her father). Through modern eyes, it’s very odd indeed, although probably the done thing, back in the day.
The mystery, which may or may not dovetail into the melodrama, is complex due to its twists and turns. You could make a very good case that it’s overly complex – I’m not at all convinced that the existence of the Man with the Dark Beard adds anything to the scheme apart from a way to catch the killer. It’s an interesting choice that a certain bit of information, which may or may not be important, is given to the reader but withheld from Stoddart – who, as in The Crystal Beads Murder, isn’t that distinctive, but is pleasant enough company.
Oh, and by the way, the locked room (before some of my readers get too excited) is a very minor part of the plot – in fact, it’s not really explained or was so basic, it was explained quickly and I missed it. It’s not an important part of the tale, so don’t buy the book for that.
Buy it instead for a very entertaining and rather different approach to mystery fiction – enough of the book is devoted to the mystery to keep me happy on that front, and the subplot, while predictable, adds another layer to things. I’ll certainly be back to Haynes soon – maybe I’ll check out Inspector Furnival next time. In the meantime, this is Highly Recommended.