Book Review(s): Of Murders and Mysteries

Being an avid enthusiast of classic mysteries, here's my pick of some of those that shaped the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, along with P. D. James's debut novel Cover Her Face.

The Red House Mystery - A. A. Milne
From the creator of some of the well-known characters for children such as Winnie-the-Pooh, comes a finely crafted whodunit. Mark Ablett, a rich bachelor who has taken up residence at the Red House, gathers a motley of people for a party at his place. With his ever efficient secretary to assist him, the day progresses rather well until the arrival of his long-lost brother Robert is announced.

Things however take a surprising turn when Robert is found dead with a bullet shot to his head. Their host having mysteriously vanished from the scene, Anthony Gillingham, who had come to visit one of the party guests, decides to get to the bottom of it all. Despite their amateur sleuthing, Gillingham and Beverley play the parts of Sherlock and Watson to the tee, and the final reveal definitely springs up as a total surprise. Garnished with adequate humor, this very English mystery is a must read.

The Secret Passage - Fergus Hume
When Susan Grant landed a job as parlourmaid at Miss Loach's home, little did she realize that she would be an unlikely witness to her employer's death. However following the unpleasant episode, Cuthbert Mallow gets the shock of his life when his fiance's mother, also Miss Loach's sister, calls off the engagement for no apparent reason.

Determined to know the motive behind her volte-face, he takes the help of his inspector chum Miles Jennings only to uncover some shocking truths about the whole affair. The secret passage, as you might have guessed from the title, is very much central to the narrative, and the plotting, while not that intricate, is competently done. Moreover I may not necessarily agree with the kind of racism projected in the story, but The Secret Passage makes up for this with a solid mystery.

The Middle Temple Murder - J. S. Fletcher
The book opens with the discovery of a man's body on Middle Temple Lane. And happening to be on the spot is Frank Spargo, a sub-editor working for The Watchman. Sensing this to be an opportunity to make a name for himself, Spargo requests his boss to let him investigate the case. But the dead man seems to have left no clue as to his identity save for a piece of paper that has the address of a young lawyer, who bears no connection to the murder whatsoever.

What's interesting here is the way Spargo operates. Being a journalist, he believes that the best way to solve the case would be to write about it, and let the readers come forward with the relevant information (and even paid if circumstances demand). Another notable aspect is the rather curious partnership between Spargo and Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Rathbury. Though they run their investigations independently and routinely share their progress with each other, we are privy only to Spargo's. The whole story is told from his perspective. My only gripe is with the lead character, for whom all this first time detective work yields the desired results without much difficulty. That aside, this is a fantastic mystery that manages to catch you off-guard with its surprising denouement.

Cover Her Face - P. D. James
Undoubtedly the queen of mystery genre (move over Agatha Christie I say!), the nonagenarian authoress never ceases to amaze me with her dexterous whodunits, and more importantly the wonderful prose that's enough to make you fall in love with the language. Her 1962 debut novel Cover Her Face also marks the first appearance of her popular creation Adam Dalgliesh as Detective Chief-Inspector, who is called on to investigate the death of a domestic help in the Maxie household.

I am not delving further into the story for it would be revealing too much. Abound with red-herrings, a super-charged backdrop, and a set of well-etched characters, Cover Her Face literally transports you back in time. Skillfully plotted, if a little slow and lacking in terms of mystery, P. D. James's scintillating debut may not be your gripping page turner, but definitely gets brownie points for her masterly storytelling capabilities. Highly recommended!