Robert Arthur Kewdingham, is unemployed, a hypochondriac who collects and doses himself with dangerous remedies, collects questionable antiquities in abundance, and believes himself to be a reborn priest from Atlantis. His interests leave him little time for anything else, especially his family, which includes wife Bertha, son Michael and his Robert Henry. In short, he is not the most pleasant person to live with.
Bertha Kewdingham’s situation is rather wretched. Money is tight, the extended Kewdingham family tolerates her existence, and Robert’s growing collection is spread throughout the house. Bertha is not one to suffer fools, and Robert’s many foibles get on her last nerve. Quite unsurprisingly, theirs is not a harmonious marriage.
Dr. Wilson Bagge, a widowed doctor whose wife, “an exasperating invalid”, died rather unexpectedly, attends to Robert professionally. But as he is considered more of a family friend, his visits to the Kewdingham’s have become more frequent. Bagge’s interest is a mix of social and professional. He has more than a passing interest in Bertha, and in Robert he sees a means of experimenting with a new prescription he has formulated. Another recently frequent visitor is John Harrigall, Robert’s cousin. John “had been thinking a good deal about his cousin’s wife…”. Of course he feels for poor unhappy Bertha—maybe a friendship with her would help her situation. But is a friendship really what he wants? “After all, if she was really fond of him…well—why not?”
As events unfold, Bertha decides her only way out of her situation is Robert’s death. Bagge decides Robert is the perfect guinea pig for his pharmaceutical experiments. Each pick’s their poison, and are shocked by the results.
This is such an unusual story. An inverted mystery with a twist. We are never in any doubt about who, or how, these individuals are trying to do away with their victim. But neither is aware of the others actions, leading to a conclusion that turns the story on its head.
Rolls created a wonderfully vivid cast of characters, and did not limit the details merely to his protagonists. Robert’s father, Robert Henry, is an unpleasant curmudgeon who constantly drops snide literary hints regarding Bertha’s behavior, the Poundle-Quaintons, Kewdingham’s aunt and spinster cousin, feel duty bound to discuss Bertha’s shortcomings whenever Robert visits, and the fluffy Pamela Chaddlewick, who feeds Robert’s ego with her attentions, and feels the need to stir the pot whenever possible. None of them is at all sympathetic, and Rolls reveals all of their eccentricities and flaws with dark humor and satirical wit.
The moral ambiguity of this inverted mystery may not be for everyone. The additional question of how, and by whom, the murder was finally accomplished could lead some readers in circles. But Rolls takes his story in genuinely interesting directions, creating an ending that is definitely not a foregone conclusion.
This is my first experience with Rolls, but it will not be my last.
My Judgement – 4.25/5
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza – 2020 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge – Rule #9 The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly below that of the average reader.