Anthony Wynne, 1931
“There’s something wrong with this house.”
Republished for the first time since 1931 as part of the British Library’s ‘Crime Classics’ series, this cleverly plotted novel harkens back to the ‘golden age’ of crime writing, when mysteries like these were simply puzzles to be worked out by the reader, rather than the basis for an emotional story to be told. Thus, there is little meat on the bones of this mystery – there are suspects, there is facts and evidence, there are alibis, there are theories, and there is little else. Having said that, I found this an engrossing and enjoyable read that I couldn’t put down until I found out the killer.
Fitting with the no-fuss style of the book, we are thrust straight into the mystery, the murder being announced in the first chapter. It never seemed to be explained why our protagonist, ‘the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey’, is living in this remote village in the Scottish Highlands. The author sees no need for such pleasantries; we have a mystery, we have a detective, so let’s get going!
Our setting is the grand ancestral home of an old and proud Scottish family, deep in the Highlands where folks are very much set in their ways. Our victim is the elderly sister of the head of the family, a godly woman with – it seems – no enemies in the local community. But as the investigation moves forward, a complex family feud is slowly uncovered which paints first one person then another with blame. Wynne handled this element well, shifting suspicion around onto almost every character.
“He knew from the beginning that the girl he married would have to live with his people. To be just, though, I’m sure he had no idea what that meant. Men never understand what one woman can inflict on another woman.”
As more and more clues were uncovered – and more murders take place, each more puzzlingly than the last – it appears that there can be no logical solution. Here, Wynne brings in a supernatural element: the predictably superstitious locals mutter about mysterious creatures who live in the loch. However, as the clues begin to form a tight web, you feel as though the supernatural really is the only explanation!
“Do you wonder, in face of all this, that stories such as that about the fishlike swimmers who come out of the deepest parts of the loch get widely believed?”
This novel is rather slow-paced; each element of the evidence is gone over in painstakingly detail. This is perhaps because the reader is meant to be solving the mystery themselves, so Wynne is giving them a fighting chance by giving them as much information as possible. However, for me, it dragged the pacing. We begin with too little information, and end with rather too much.
Because we are plunged right into the novel, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on to begin with – which I don’t think was entirely intentional. This isn’t aided by the fact that characterisation isn’t exactly Wynne’s strong point, particularly among the male characters, several of whom seemed pretty much identical to each other. By contrast, the two central female characters were painstakingly described (especially the generic ‘beauty’ of their faces). These two ‘good’ female characters are so similar that they are literally described as clones of each other. At least Wynne is self-aware of his inability to differentiate these two characters. This subtly implies that there is only one type of ‘good’ woman.
How beautiful the girl looked in her adversity!
Wynne’s writing style can be rather mechanical at times, except for the setting descriptions, which show great sensitivity. Wynne’s native Scotland was described in loving detail and permeated the story rather than merely serving as a backdrop.
Autumn was dressing herself in her scarlets and saffron; already the air held that magical quality of light which belongs only to diminishing days and which seems to be of the same texture as the colours it illuminates. He marked the fans of the chestnuts across the burn, pale gold and pale green. The small coin of birch leaves a-jingle in the wind, light as the sequins on a girl’s dress, the beeches and oaks, wine-stained from the winds’ Bacchanal, the rowans, flushed with their fruiting.
The novel comes to an extremely sudden end when the killer is revealed and their method explained – another memento of a literary era when murder mysteries simply served as a puzzle to be solved rather than a story to be told. The killer has been revealed and puzzle solved – no need to go over the emotional aftermath.
Though I would certainly criticise this book on various aspects, I would still recommend it as an entertaining murder mystery that demands to be read until you find out the answer. However, there are far better murder mysteries out there, so if you’re new to the genre, I wouldn’t particularly start here.
“Is there a single crime that you or I might not commit in certain circumstances? I feel sure that only very stupid or very vain people are so entirely sure of themselves as to believe themselves immune from temptation.”