Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Emperor’s Snuffbox by John Dickson Carr

The Emperor’s Snuffbox by John Dickson Carr (Harper, 1942) is a dazzling display of plotting pyrotechnics. No locked room but a puzzle so tightly woven I had to read the explication twice before I fully understood all of the moving parts.

Eve Neill has finally convinced her cheating husband Ned Atwood to cooperate in a divorce. In conservative France where they are living in a resort area, there is every incentive for a woman to remain in a marriage but Eve has had it with Ned. She doesn’t even care about the potential for embarrassing publicity, she just wants him out of her life. Since they were married in France and the divorce action completed in France, there was little mention in the English papers to her great relief. After a few months Eve is bored and lonely and a little depressed when the stuffed shirt son Toby Lawes of the English expatriate family across the street begins to court her. His family kindly expresses happiness when she accepts his proposal of marriage, although her status as a divorcee shocks them a little.

The murder of the family patriarch, Sir Maurice Lawes, late one night, changes everything. Sitting up late admiring a new and expensive acquisition for his collection of tchotchkes, Sir Maurice is brutally and fatally attacked with a poker. The French police zero in on Eve, whose clothing has unexplained blood and who has no alibi. She also has no motive but that does not bother them. The French inspector calls in Dr. Dermot Kinross, an eminent English criminal psychologist who often works with the police, because he does not believe Eve is guilty. Dr. Kinross also decides Eve is not guilty and begins looking hard at the family of the victim, who after all were in the house at the time and had the easiest access. From that point on one startling plot twist after another unfolds.

All of the clues are available in this fair play mystery and I missed about half of them. Highly recommended for Golden Age fans.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: She Came Back by Patricia Wentworth

She Came Back by Patricia Wentworth (J.B. Lippincott, 1945) is the ninth mystery featuring Miss Silver, former governess and now modestly successful private investigator. The family of Lady Anne Jocelyn is stunned when Anne appears unexpectedly in her country home, more than three years after she was believed killed by Germans while she, her husband, a cousin, and others were making a desperate bid to escape France just after the invasion. Anne and the cousin had a strong family resemblance. Anne contends that the cousin was mistaken for her in the dark and now lies buried in the churchyard under Anne’s name.

Sir Philip Jocelyn was on the verge of marrying someone else and he is reluctant to welcome his wife home. He agrees to her request for six months to try to re-establish their marriage but he is not convinced that he should. Their relationship had been shaky before Anne’s supposed death and he does not expect their differences to be easily resolved. Complicating all of this is the fact the money in the marriage belongs to Anne, not Philip. Unless she remains dead, he is more or less her pensioner. Then a former nanny of the dead cousin turns up dead herself, on a road no one expected her to be on and Scotland Yard is called in. In no time at all Sergeant Frank Abbott is consulting Miss Silver.

This is the third Miss Silver mystery I’ve read in which someone who is thought to be dead appears again, very much alive. The other two are The Case of William Smith and Miss Silver Deals with Death. All three are set during the confusion and upheaval of World War II, when communications, such as they were, were disrupted and people could disappear easily if they wanted to, and sometimes even if they didn’t want to. It’s hard to imagine doing that now, with DNA kits being sold by mail and international databases of fingerprints easily accessible to any law enforcement representative. These books are especially intriguing to me, as they clearly delineate a very different time and place that actually wasn’t that long ago. For fans of traditional mysteries and of mysteries set during World War II.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Corpses in Enderby by George Bellairs

George Bellairs is a byword in the world of classic British crime fiction. The pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-1982), a Manchester bank manager as well as a freelance journalist, he published 57 popular classic police procedural mysteries featuring Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard between 1941 and 1980. Corpses in Enderby (John Gifford, 1954) is 22nd in the series.

The small town of Enderby is stunned when Ned Bunn, a prosperous and unpleasant merchant, is shot in front of his store one night. He’d just thrown his assistant out for courting Bunn’s 40-year-old daughter, after gleefully announcing his intent to foreclose on the mortgage he held on the store next door. Since the assistant was the only one known to be nearby, the local police investigator rushes to pin the crime on him. His superior the Chief Constable of the county is not so sure and calls in Scotland Yard for a second look.

Inspector Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell arrive in Enderby as the large and decidedly peculiar Bunn family gathers to attend the funeral and more importantly to learn how the decedent’s considerable assets were to be distributed. As Littlejohn soon learns, a trust established by the previous generation was dissolved with Ned Bunn’s death, and as a result several individuals in the family will inherit thousands of pounds.

This strong motive for murder leads Littlejohn to look closely at the whereabouts of family members at the time of the shooting. Interviewing most of them is painful, as they are more than a little eccentric, and most of them cheerfully dissemble without a qualm. Bellairs created a set of comical characters in the Bunns who are entertaining in their horridness.

But the Bunns aren’t the only ones in the story who are so awful they are funny. The landlord of the inn where Littlejohn and Cromwell are staying and his wife treat the policemen to a long-running domestic drama that unexpectedly resolves itself just as Littlejohn hones in on the culprit and could do without the distraction.

The characters and their antics tend to usurp the investigation in this story and downplay the iniquity of the crimes. I plan to read a few more in this series to see if this is a pattern. Fortunately many of them have been released in ebook format and are more readily available than they would have been 10 years ago. For devotees of classic crime fiction.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Through the Wall by Patricia Wentworth

Through the Wall by Patricia Wentworth (Lippincott, 1950) is the 17th (according to www.stopyourekillingme.com and Wikipedia) or 19th (Amazon and GoodReads) mystery featuring Miss Maud Silver, former governess and current successful private investigator. While each book references her former profession, I have yet to find the book, if one exists, that explains exactly how she made that transition. It would be a story well worth reading.

In this outing Martin Brand takes his revenge on the relatives that have lived off his generosity for years by leaving his substantial estate to an unknown niece. Marion Brand has been working in a real estate office, quietly supporting herself and a sickly sister, along with the sister’s layabout husband, and had no notion that she had a wealthy relative until a solicitor contacts her.

She is stunned to learn about her inheritance. While she comes to terms with just how considerably her circumstances have changed, the layabout husband makes plans for the expenditure of the fortune she’s inherited, confident that Marion will divide the money with her sister. The enraged relatives are left without the proverbial shilling, including a home. Marion has also inherited Uncle Martin’s house near the sea, which is actually two homes with connecting doors. He advises her in his will to re-establish the division between the two houses, as evicting the relatives will cause more trouble than she is likely prepared for.

While living next door to antagonistic people will be awkward, Marion loses no time in packing up and moving into her half of the house, where she hopes her sister will grow stronger. One of the people in the other half of the house when she arrives is a visiting actress and singer who is being blackmailed. She consults Miss Silver but declines to take her advice to go to the police. When the actress is found murdered a few days later, wearing Marion’s coat, the police ask themselves if the actress was killed because of something in her life or if she was killed because her murderer thought she was Marion Brand?

Fortunately Miss Silver and her favorite Scotland Yard detectives are on the case. I usually have some idea of the culprit in these books but this story had several unpleasant people and I would have been happy to see any of them led away in handcuffs. This series is my current comfort read. I have read and re-read Agatha Christie’s novels so often that I can quote from my favorites, so there is little point in visiting them yet again. This title filled the need for an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Recommended for fans of Golden Age detection.