Professor of English, Mark Ruthven thinks his wife Brenda is having an affair with Frank Chadwick, and Brenda thinks Mark is having an affair with Rose Lestrange. There’s also a prankster loose at Queen’s College in Virginia, who is painting graffiti on the gym walls and pushing janitors into pools. Jokes or attempts at murder? For some reason Ruthven is to be the judge of that. Then Brenda walks out on Ruthven, telling him that on her way she was going to confront Rose. The next morning Rose is found dead in her bedroom, stabbed in the chest. The door and all of the windows are locked. It looks like suicide, until Ruthven sees the book on her nightstand, and it’s not the one that should be there. And then there is Ruthven’s research into a previously unknown “locked room” mystery novel planned, but never written, by Wilkie Collins. Luckily Dr. Gideon Fell is on his was to town.
Confused yet? Good, you’re right where I was at about this time.
The first half of the story is a morass of marital squabbling and attempted infidelity with a murder thrown in. The dialogue is strident, filled with squabbles, cries, yelling, and roaring. The narrative feels chaotic, with characters often speaking in unfinished sentences, or with cryptic lines thrown about without meaning or explanation.
The ending Carr devised is rather, shall we say, odd? I’m well aware of Carr’s proclivity for interesting outcomes in terms of justice (and without spoilers I can’t go into details), but this one left me bemused. But it’s the immediate lead up to that ending, where it seems as if Carr is attempting to bring a bit of his beloved historical fiction to play, that had me quite baffled.
There are good points to the book though. Once Fell comes on the scene (which unfortunately isn’t until exactly halfway through) I felt I was in familiar territory. He takes the characters in hand—at least as best Carr will let him—seizes the various threads, sizes up the participants, and shows them all just what it is they refuse to see. The identity of the culprit remained well hidden throughout, and I found the solution to the mystery very satisfying. I’ll admit that I’m no expert on locked room mysteries, but I believe that Carr’s locked room trick here is, while more technical than his previous methods, ingenious.
Interestingly (or not), I’m very familiar with Fell’s setting. Not 1948—I’m not that old! The geographic setting is one I know well. While there is no Queen’s College or Queenshaven, Belhaven Virginia does exist. Now known as Belle Haven, it sits on the southern edge of Old Town Alexandria (which after it’s founding was called Alexandria by some, Belhaven by others). As a teenager, I visited Washington, D. C. with my family while on vacation, and our hotel was in Belle Haven. I can remember, even as late as that (the mid 70s) it felt like a small town, rather than the busy, crowded suburb it is today. It is also, as an adult, where I worked (and lived just outside of) for many years.
Definitely not the best of Carr. With the rating going steadily down, and only four books to go, I don’t have a hope in Hades that my Fell odyssey will come to a happy conclusion do I?
My Judgment – 3/5
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza – 2014 Bingo – Read one book set in the U.S
Calendar of Crime – #4 Academic setting