Washington, DC, lawyer Lawrence Blakely has been inveigled by his partner, Richey McKnight, into taking the train to Pittsburgh in order to confirm that a set of important papers are indeed forgeries. Having completed his business, Blakely procures a berth for the return journey onboard the Washington Flier. During night Blakely leaves his berth and is forced to take another when his is occupied by another passenger. In the morning he finds his bag, with all of his possessions, including the forged papers, is gone. But worse yet, the man who took his berth is dead, stabbed with a dagger—that was found in the berth where Blakely slept, along with the dead man’s wallet. Blakely should have been arrested, but fate intervenes in the form of a deadly train wreck. Blakely is thrown clear and makes his escape, with some help from a very attractive fellow passenger, who then disappears from his life. He may have survived the wreak, but now Blakely must find the real killer, clear his name and find the girl.
The Man in Lower Ten is Rinehart’s first published book (it was originally serialized in All-Story Magazine in 1906). Because of her “Had I But Known” brand of mystery writing, I’ve always been leery of reading Rinehart before now. Honestly, I don’t think I would ever have read this if I hadn’t received the 1937 Dell mapback edition as part of my Vintage Booklover Box subscription from Kate, via her Etsy shop Coffee and Crime. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
There are a great many moving parts to this story, but Rinehart handled it all very deftly. There is the forgery case that originally sent Blakely to Pittsburgh, mysterious goings on an empty house next to Blakely’s, the missing papers, and the hunt for the murderer. And it’s all complicated by several mysterious women, including one whom Blakely’s best friend hopes to marry—but who captures Blakely’s heart and rouses his protective instincts.
I was expecting the style to be more stilted and formal. There is, as befits the time it was written, a tendency towards the melodramatic and overly sentimental, but I was surprised at how readable, and often humorous, Rinehart’s writing is. While the pacing of the story sometimes falters, Rinehart kept things moving with sprinklings of action and injections of humor. And while none of the characters are ever fully fleshed out, there are a few who provide some delightful comic relief. Mrs. Klopton, Blakely’s housekeeper, ruthlessly runs both his house and his life; Mr. Hotchkiss, an eager amateur detective determined to solve the mystery himself, and Johnson, the professional detective whose job is to dutifully shadow Blakely, and often suffers for it.
The mystery is made quite complex due to all of the elements, and sometimes takes a backseat to the romance. The investigation also tends to meander between the murder and the missing papers, and Blakely must often be prodded into investigating. But still, the solution is one I didn’t see coming as Rinehart did very well in concealing both the motive and identity of the murderer.
Rinehart blends her mystery with atmosphere, a bit of action and danger, dashes of humor, and a romance that’s not too heavy on melodrama, in what ends up being a very satisfying read.
My Rating – 3.75/5
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one book that involves a mode of transportation