The Man With The Dark Beard by Annie Haynes

The Man with The Dark BeardDr 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.

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17 comments

  1. I found the balance between sensation fiction and detective fiction components too unbalanced, as the dominance of the sensation fiction elements meant for me the investigation and the clue solving were truncated and reduced. I find such stories less interesting to read because you’ve already guessed whos, the whats, and whys, before you’re a third of the way through the novel. Having said that though, Haynes’ narrative style/voice is very strong, making it along with the others a quick read. The two strongest Haynes’ in my opinion is The Crime at Tattenham Corner and The House at Charlton Crescent, with the latter having a mystery which manages to last until the end.

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    • But there are two distinct strands on evildoing going on here – the sensational bit and the murder. I won’t say any more but I wonder if Haynes did not intend the big picture to be as obvious as it ended up being. Did you understand how the locked room worked, by the way?

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  2. well if I did understand it then I’ve forgotten it! And the murder bit which you see as a separate strand (I kind of see them as a bit more interwoven) I found to be overshadowed, as Inspector Stoddart is barely seen in at least the first half of the novel, if not more, and when his investigation is given a bit more page space, it’s function seems a bit reduced to confirming what the reader has already figured out.

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  3. I attempted to read the book but gave up after reading a few chapters since I found it mediocre.
    Regarding the locked room stuff, of the 2 doors to the consulting room, the inside door was found locked on the inside while the garden door was also locked. However, it is never mentioned that the garden door was locked on the inside. Thus there is actually no locked room stuff.

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