Sunday, August 13, 2023

John Dickson Carr : "As Drink The Dead" , from The Haverfordian ( 1926, March )in "The door to doom and other detections", Harper & Row, 1980





Carr's story that leads the way to the entire collection of short stories, pastiches, radio plays and essays contained in The Door To Doom is  As Drink The Dead , The Haverfordian 1926. It is an extraordinary story, which mixes supernatural atmospheres, impossible crimes and historical research.

Two men are talking in a hall: one, with a shaggy beard, thin and bony, whom people called "the Old German Gnome", is a man of letters; the other with white robes and white hair, is a holy man. From the windows you can admire a typically Italian countryside landscape.

The man of letters wants to finish his novel which will deal with the Borgias, but to do so he needs to see the Trebbia Cup, one of the two which according to legend would have been filled with poisoned wine, causing the death of Pope Alexander VI Borgia and his son the Duke Valentine. The cup has been owned by the Monsignor for generations. He reiterates to his guest that the two died not because they had been poisoned, but by the direct will of God who would have punished them for their sins. In fact, when their death occurred, nearby was the very person who had created those cups, the alchemist Garcini Della Trebbia, mad with love for the daughter of the Pope and sister of the Duke, Lucrezia Borgia. The cardinal, at whose castle the two had arrived and who was unaware that the wine was intended for him, witnessed the atrocious deaths of father and son. And thinking that Garcini himself had poisoned them, he forced him to drink the supposedly poisoned wine from the two goblets, which he did placidly. Yet nothing happened to him. That is why Monsignor, at the end of the guest's story, attributes their death to divine intervention.

Monsignor calls a servant and orders him to bring the cup. The servant is terrified, because a minute ago he saw the old saint upstairs lying on the bed with four lighted candles (dead?) and now he finds him alive below. Stumbling out, von Arnhim will name the devil.

Shortly afterwards, in the presence of the Trebbia Cup, Monsignor, to refute the Guest's thesis that the cup is cursed, pours the wine they were drinking placed on the table, and drinks. Shortly afterwards, Von Arnhim understands how the Borgia pope and his son had been killed, but does not have time to save Monsignore, who dies before his eyes.

The story demonstrates in its entirety how Carr at the age of 21 already had that innate literary vein that would have allowed him to become one of the cornerstones of the mystery genre. In fact, the plot of the story is well conceived: first of all there is a mysterious atmosphere that surrounds two strange characters, one opposite to the other, one with a leaden aura, the other sparkling. Then there is a historical tale, which recreates a bygone era, which speaks of atrocities, loves, crimes. Then there is an inexplicable double death by poisoning: Pope Borgia and his son, who were supposed to kill a cardinal who was an obstacle to them, right at his house, happens they drink by mistake the poisoned wine that was reserved for their guest. Then there is an equally impossible explanation of the poisoning not by human but by divine hands. Finally there is an impossible death in the temporal plane of the present, while the solution of the case is rendered by the Gnome. The time lag of the past and the present, in a continuous jump from one to the other, convinces the reader that something will happen in the present connected to the past. And indeed this happens.

Carr's ability to blend fantasy and historical or presumed truth is absolutely disconcerting, if compared to the young age of the writer: this is the first absolute case of historical mystery, the one that Carr will then bring to the level of a masterpiece with The Velvet Devil and Fire!, Burn. Even there, the time lag creates the conditions for a story bordering on the incredible, but in which the impossible/possible is always around the corner.

The impossible poisoning can already be understood before how it is then explained, if one pays attention to what Garcini Della Trebbia does when he is forced by the cardinal to drink from the cup: by what he does, and by what the two victims do , one can already guess how the poison was dispensed. The impossibility is then explained, however not in time to save the last of the Borgias from death.

However, the story is not only the first text of a historical thriller that is linked to the theme that will become peculiar to Carr, that is, the impossible crime. It is also a story with supernatural implications, or supposedly so: Carr's ability however lies "not in defining what is supernatural or not", but in leaving more doors open, more solutions, including the supernatural one, but which might not even be: the fact that the terrified servant saw the master in another part of the house, lying on the bed, very white, between four candles, while later finding him alive and well elsewhere, could be explained by a simple hallucination of the servant ; or, and here is the supernatural possibility, that perhaps the devil has hinted at the end of the old man before it happens. In fact Von Arnhim will murmur as the servant leaves stumbling in the door: "The devil". Unless Von Arnhim himself is the devil himself, and has caused his guest to be tricked into seizing the goblet, and pouring wine into it, and then dying. It is no coincidence that the two cups of Garcini della Trebbia, of which the one in the Monsignor's possession remained, were called The Devil's Grail.

The Halverfordian tales formed the basis of much subsequent writing. We have also seen it for The Legend of the Cane in the Dark, but the cases are countless. And even in this case, in my opinion, there is a filiation between this and a subsequent story.

This is the case of The Adventure of the Black Baronet in EXPLOITS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the Collection of short stories written in collaboration with Adrian Doyle (son of Conan), which earned both the Edgar Award.

Also in The Adventure of the Black Baronet, even if the story is completely different, the death, by impossible stabbing, because the stab came from the bottom up when the victim was drinking from a cup, at the head of the table, comes directly from the story many years ago. And absolutely the same is the trick. Even if the final weapon, in the past the poison, here the dagger, are different.

Again, the solution is perfectly rendered. Indeed, in Sherlock's apocrypha, there is also a double ending, because the murderer is a victim in turn, driven to kill by the wickedness of his victim. A sort of reversal of the parts, typical by Carr.

The last consideration is for the narrative part: the story of the past of As Drink the Dead is a very clever mix of truth and lies: Garcini Della Trebbia never existed, but his lover Lucrezia Borgia did; the Trebbia cup, is also an invention but the way in which Alexander VI and his son died was not, even if this story too is double: the most accredited story, but not unequivocal, attributes the death of the pope to a heart attack due to malaria-induced weakness, while his son would survive him by 4 years, later dying of syphilis; then there is another version, more fictionalized, credited to Guicciardini, and it was from this that Carr drew inspiration for the story, which wants the death of Pope Borgia by random poisoning, together with his son: having decided to kill the cardinal who lived at Villa del Cornetto, with a poisoned cup of wine, exhausted from the journey and thirsty, they drank the same poisoned wine they should have kept for their guest.

Love for drama, creation of perfectly explained impossible situations, creation of atmospheres bordering on the supernatural, tireless historical research, and a narrative made up of skilful descriptions and psychological atmospheres: this was Carr.

Pietro De Palma

Monday, July 17, 2023

John Rhode : Poison for One, 1934



John Rhode alias Miles Burton were the two pseudonyms used by Cecil John Charles Street (Gibraltar, 1884-Eastbourne, 1964), to write Mystery: the first being used for the series with Sir Lancelot Priestley, retired scientist, the second for the one with Desmond Marrion, former Naval Officer.

Before dedicating himself to writing he was first an artillery officer and then an officer in MI7, the Counterintelligence of the time. He wrote many novels, and this penalized him because he could not always maintain a certain narrative and inventive quality. However, a good number of novels brought him to general attention, so as to earn him the consideration of John Dickson Carr, with whom he wrote a brilliant novel, Fatal Descent.

The consideration of critics, as well as that of the public, was not always unanimous.

If in fact Willard Huntington Wright better known as S.S. Van Dine, in 1927, in his essay The Great Detective Stories, stated: “Better written, conceived with greater moderation, and clinging more closely to human probabilities, are John Rhode's novels dealing with Dr. Priestley's adventures-Dr. Priestley's Quest, The Paddington Mystery, and The Ellerby Case. Dr.-or, as he is generally referred to in Mr. Rhode's text, Professor-Priestley has many characteristics in common with Dr. Thorndyke. He is a schoolman, fairly well along in years, without a sense of humour, and inclined to dryness; but he is more of the intellectual scientist, or scientific thinker, than Dr. Freeman's hero. ("Priestley, Willard Huntington Wright cursed with a restless brain and an almost immoral passion for the highest branches of mathematics, occupied himself in skirmishing round the portals of the universities, occasionally flinging a bomb in the shape of a highly controversial thesis in some ultra -scientific journal.") His detective cases to date have been few, and he suffers by comparison with the superior Dr. Thorndyke”; and Julian Symmons in Bloody Murder (Penguin, 1974), designated him as belonging to the Humdrums genre, considering him a pretentious author : " as a prominent member of the "Humdrum" school of detective fiction. "Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it. They had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and ironically they fulfilled much better than S. S. Van Dine his dictum that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles or crossword puzzles. Most of the Humdrums were British, and among the best known of them were Major John Street ..,” other critics have extolled this more recently, notably Curtis Evans in his Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920–1961 (McFarland Press, 2012) : “.. long overdue reappraisal of these purportedly "humdrum" detection writers as accomplished literary artists. Not only did they produce a goodly number of fine fair play puzzles, but their clever tales have more intrinsic interest as social documents and even sometimes as literary novels than they have been credited with having”.


The novel discussed here is a locked room, rather unusual. In fact the crime perpetrated is the murder of Sir Gerard Uppingham in his mansion by prussic acid poisoning. Why am I talking about an unusual case? Because usually when we talk about locked rooms, cases of disappearances, murders, thefts perpetrated in a strictly defined and closed space are mentioned, and because all these crimes can be worth being considered in this genre, it is it is necessary that the criminal action has been carried out personally in the closed space, and then the murderer has managed to escape, maintaining the limit situation, i.e. the effective closure of doors and windows; poisoning, on the other hand, does not necessarily presuppose a direct action by the murderer in the closed room, i.e. his presence at the time of the victim's death, because poisoning can be prepared first, and then let the victim, drinking or eating something , dies, like a rat in a trap. Normally. But here the poisoning is served up in an absolutely ingenious way, which does not exclude the presence of the murderer.

This is one of the two cornerstones on which the novel rests. The other is being a classic whodunnit, where motive and killer must be reasonably identified and proven.

Sir Gerard Uppingham is an industrialist who made his fortune mining albanite, a mineral used to generate light in lamps. Although he is rich and respected, however, he is not loved. He is not loved by his partners Somerton-Jackson and Tibbott, but not even by his fiancée to whom Muriel Featherleigh is promised, and especially by his future brother-in-law Rupert; even her sister Elvira doesn't show much attachment; and also his secretary Percy Richards has an ambiguous attitude towards him. But everyone, and especially Lord Cossington and his sons Muriel and Rupert, should be far from having a grudge against him because Cossington's family is on the verge of ruin and therefore only Muriel's marriage to Sir Henry could restore sixth the family; yet only the old Lord shows himself not averse to his future son-in-law. The fact is that in such an environment, one evening when everyone or almost everyone was invited to dinner, and there was also a moment when the wife of one of the envoys played Beethoven on the piano, he was found locked in his study , Sir Gerard Uppingham, died of prussic acid poisoning. Doors (3) and French windows, closed, except for the one forced by Somerton-Jackson, Tibbott and Percy Richards, the secretary of Uppingham.

The three immediately call the family doctor, Doctor Emery, who had also been to the evening at first, leaving immediately afterwards. He diagnoses Uppingham's death and suggests calling the police, as he believes death is not natural. It appears that the vehicle is a bottle of cough syrup, to which a generous amount of hydrogen cyanide has been added to kill in seconds. And therefore its content was poured by the murderer or by the victim himself into the glass, but there is no trace of saliva on the rim of the glass which therefore would not appear to have been used for poisoning. Then how?

Another strange thing are the glasses of port, wine and whiskey that the landlord had asked his butler to have found in the study and which lead the investigators, Sir Lancelot Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, to doubt whether Uppingham should have hosted for discuss not only Somerton-Jackson and Tibbott, but a fourth character as well. By any chance a certain John Woodville, who seems to have arrived in the village but no one knows where he went?

To identify the culprit, it is necessary to establish the Cui Prodest, i.e. the motive. Apparently no one would have one. But the strange thing is that at the time of the industrialist's death, very few, practically only Lord Cossington, are saddened by his death and indeed are relieved by it.

Hanslet soon discovers  the victim had not only impregnated a village girl while he was engaged to Muriel, but had also attempted to have sex with Somerton-Jackson's wife while he was busy at the factory. Therefore, Somerton-Jackson himself would have a motive, but also Rupert and perhaps even Muriel. Only Lord Cossington seems to be sad, because it seems that with the marriage he would have become director of a company, he who had squandered his and his wife's assets in horse bets, and would have revived the family finances, by virtue of a new will that Uppingham he would sign on the day of the wedding. He would have gained new liquidity, the other his noble title. But the sudden death made the second will invalid, so with the first, Uppingham's sister, Elvira, who inherits everything, gained everything. And then you add her to the others for motive. Moreover, hers is double: to inherit the fortune and to prevent another person from inheriting it. Uppingham is linked to Percy Richards, and this must be evaluated because he is the one who says he brought a bottle of syrup even though she was stolen from him (he says so). Furthermore, the issue of telephone calls is linked to Richards: he says that a telephone call was received at 10.15 pm of which no one knows anything, while he claims that he has not heard any telephone calls ringing, while from the telephone company it is learned that this call was arrived at 10.43pm. And in those moments, the doctor said that Sir Gerard presumably died.

The investigation goes on. Someone, the phantom John Woodville, sent a crate to the factory containing raw albanite. Hanslet learns here that Somerton-Jackson took potassium cyanide a few days before Sir Gerard's death (cyanide is produced from cyanide gas produced by processing albanite), and is about to issue a warrant for Somerton-Jackson's arrest , when Dr. Priesley intervenes and upsets everything: no syrup was found in the victim's stomach, yet it was in the syrup that a small amount of concentrated prussic acid was dissolved. Furthermore, the victim could not bear the smell of bitter almonds and therefore would never have drunk a syrup that had that smell. So it follows that the syrup was put to mislead, it's a red herring. The victim was killed by hydrogen cyanide and that's for sure, but how? Slowly one begins to think that it was inhaled in the form of anhydrous gas, but this leads to the possibility that someone made him inhale it (so how would it have come out?) and then the Locked Room problem reappears, or that it is a deadly mechanism has been set up. Somerton is still among the suspects, because hydrogen cyanide can also be obtained by the reverse process from potassium cyanide. But..

Here's a twist! Her wife, with whom Uppingham wanted to have sex with, accuses herself of the murder, without however providing evidence of her action, and therefore making her suspect that she wants to cover for someone, perhaps her husband. But the husband also adopts a similar or almost similar tactic: isn't he in turn suspicious of his wife?

However beyond these true or false confessions, the investigations go on and lead to the discovery of…a cork in Uppingham's studio. Together with the testimony of the person behind the pseudonym of John Woodville, that is Lemaitre, the president of the French national company competing with the British one of Uppingham in the exploitation of albanite, according to which he was the fourth person waiting for Uppingham that evening been killed, will provide the clues that will lead Dr. Lancelot Priestley (and Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard), to detect the killer.


Beyond a certain tortuosity in the first part of the novel (to arrive at the decision that it was certainly a matter of murder, one would expect almost 100 pages), this one by Rhode is a good novel! Even if the undersigned to the murderer and the accomplice got there 50 pages earlier, even before the cork was found. Call it sixth sense? I don't know. However, the memory of another novel made me think, if I'm not mistaken later (I don't remember which one it was: ah the memory !) in which the culprit was the same, and for the same thing, he hadn't initially been considered among the suspects. And furthermore he is a character who later becomes known, he frequented Govery Manor, the residence of Lord Cossington.

The absolutely ingenious weapon, and I would never have thought that such an object could be used to kill, but if anything.. to pass the fever! And the cork goes well with the rest. After all, it is a characteristic of Rhode, that of inventing mechanisms capable of killing, which can be derived from the fact that he had been an officer in the English army. A direct consequence of Rhode's origin, it is an object the killer uses to get himself invited to Uppingham's house. Using hydrogen cyanide gas as a weapon, on the other hand, is nothing new: in fact it had already been used six years earlier, in what some consider Rhode's masterpiece (but was it really?): The Murders in Praed Street. If anything, the medium changes: there a light bulb, here…

The Locked Room is only apparent, because the door through which the assassin enters and exits is provided with a snap lock, however how we arrive at conjecturing his presence and how he managed to get himself invited and how he killed, is a nice to say. The clues are there, and the culprit doesn't just fall from the sky, because he is present throughout the story, several times; if anything, his motive does not spring directly from the facts, which is, for once, not greed, hatred, revenge, but… love. And we get there, only per absurdum.

But then it is said that by reasoning in this way, one cannot catch the culprit.

Pietro De Palma

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Margaret Erskine: The Voice of Murder, 1956


Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), wrote 21 detective stories featuring Inspector Septimus Finch, between 1938 and 1977. She was born on May 2, 1901 in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada but grew up in Devon, England. She died on July 9, 1984.
One might think that she was of Canadian origins, but this is not the case: her parents were temporarily in Canada and therefore she was born there, but in reality they were English: her father was Thomas Wetherby Williams and her mother Elizabeth Erskine. On her father's side he was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron of Llanidan on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, while on her mother's side from the Erskines, a noble Scottish family, related to the Stuarts. Indeed, it is very probable that she herself descended from that Margaret Erskine who was the lover of James V of Scotland, father of Maria Stuarda.
Why did Margaret Erskine, then 30, start writing detective novels in 1937? Mysteries scholar Ellen Nehr said in 1984 that she Margaret Erskine had once said she did it as a form of revolt against her family by her name.
Margaret Erskine later became a member of the Crime Writers Association, and she died in a nursing home in 1984 (news learned on Curtis Evans' The Passing Tramp blog).
Voice of Murder is a 1956 novel and is the ninth in the series.

Alice Carne is 48 years old and still a beautiful woman. She writes a letter in the evening. The next morning they find her dead. His doctor Stephen Leighton is forced to report his suspicions to the police: namely that Alice was murdered, by poisoning with an opiate, which later turns out to be morphine: someone had taken the pills of the late Miss Page (the housekeeper) , forcing the cabinet where they were placed. Augusta Parrish, Miss Alice's niece on her mother's side, witnessed part of Alice's speech the night before, before writing the letter (which has since disappeared), to an individual she identified as Dominick Potter, former fellow soldier and friend of Charles Forrest, cousin of Augusta, rescued by Dominick during the conflict, although he died anyway. Alice would have been scandalized because she thought that he and Barbara, the woman she lives with, were married and instead they are not, since she is even married to another man.
Inspector Septimus Finch is called to investigate, the seventh of seven brothers, son of lawyers, but who had made his entire career as a simple agent earning the esteem of his superiors and ending up working in the CID. Finch, together with Sergeant Gilroy, will unravel the skein and catch a diabolical assassin, but not before he has killed two more times, removing dangerous witnesses, and who are also attempting on Augusta's life, in a pyrotechnic finale, in which one time the other possible suspects will be set aside.
The story will end with a pink ending.
Very fine and elegant writer, Margaret Erskine wrote stories that often concern family mysteries, with dark secrets that peep out: here there are extramarital affairs that intertwine.
Very skilled in plotting, and in the psychology of the characters, she mixes mystery and thriller in an irresistible amalgam. In Anglo-Saxon countries, her novels have been defined as gothic, not really being so, because they are real detective stories, despite the trappings sometimes enriching them with gothic elements (sleepwalkers walking in their dressing gowns in the moonlight, for example). Even if "gothic" is an adjective not exactly fitting. Of course, in the sixties and seventies, when Margaret Erskine's books were successful again, there was a fashion for books and films that sometimes even bordered on the pseudo-erotic-horror genre. And therefore, they defined her series with Finch, gothic. In reality, the gothic atmospheres of her novels do not arise as they refer to this neo-gothic vein, even cinematographic, but much earlier: since the end of the 30s and in the 40s and 50s, when Margaret wants to instill fear and tension always describes nocturnal landscapes, with the sounds and colors of the night; and this tendency to recover this type of fear of the dark is in her an effect of having read about her in her youth, the many books about her that her father's enormous library had made available to her.
We do not know if she had read the ghost stories of Henry James, of Montague Rhode and those of vampires and doppelgangers of Joseph Le Fanu; it is certain that Margaret Erskine, she had appropriated that way of writing, of evoking dark and nocturnal atmospheres, which only in this way already instilled fear in her pages.
We don't know if she had read John Dickson Carr or J.J. Connington, but it is certain that, like them, he knew how to nonchalantly master the tremors, sighs and gasps, and not only the song of hoopoes and owls, but also of other birds, if done at night, becomes an omen of misfortune: it is no coincidence that , Aunt Alice's death, happens when? Late at night. And when she sees a barred, swollen face that she tries to peer at it from outside the kitchen window? Late at night. When it's dark. And when she distinctly feels that there is someone behind her watching her, while she is writing the letters with which she offers herself to the police as a witness, and when she comes out onto the landing, what do she see? The darkness that swallows her. And she is afraid. Because she suspects that there is someone watching her in her shadow. And she's not wrong, because a few minutes later when she comes back, her letter has disappeared from the desk.
Psychological depth is another of the strengths of her novels and in this she is immediately noticeable: everything is the opposite of everything. No one can be said to be innocent until Finch puts him aside. Each subject is what he says he is, but also what he doesn't say he is: Alice hates Timothy in words, and Timothy hates Alice in words, because she cheated on him by putting herself with another. But.. then they get married, secretly. And someone kills them. But not for the money motive. The motive of money, even if it is waved wide, is not the right one. Here the one of the Deep South stirs, of the shame of a secret union, of the amorality of a union more uxosio which is not matrimonial. Of course everyone would give a damn about the bigoted morals of the not even fifty-year-old Alice, if they didn't all depend on her, for her money: Gordon and her wife, to open a bigger school for handicapped children; Dominick Potter for the bequest of five thousand pounds; Pauline Forrest, to continue spending on hats, perfume, purses, shoes and dresses; Augusta and her mother for the bequest of twenty thousand pounds.
It won't be Augusta, the fourth failed victim, who remembers the words that the killer thinks he heard and instead didn't hear because he was already shocked by the revelation of his aunt, that his father had killed himself out of shame for an extramarital affair revealed by anonymous letters, she fled to the first floor and locked herself up in her room. But Barbara, Potter's shameless companion who, having followed her companion to Alice, will reveal the last words of the assassin nailing him to her responsibilities. 
Furthermore, the reading and the sentimental ending with Augusta leaving, together with a gloating Septimus Finch, brought back to mind the plot of another novel, from twenty years earlier: Artists in Crime, by Ngaio Marsh. In truth, not only does Margaret Erskine describe situations, places and subjects in Marsh's way, but it seems to me that she also takes from Marsh the love between a CID Inspector and the heroine of the moment: there Roger Alleyn and Agatha Troy, here Septimus Finch and Augusta, an event certainly not usual in detective literature.
Historical courses and appeals.
Pietro De Palma 
Lots of news, about Margaret Erskine, on Curtis Evans' blog, The Passing Tramp

Friday, March 24, 2023

Elizabeth Ferrars: Furnished for Murder, 1957


Morna Doris MacTaggart (1907-1995), was born in Rangoon, Burma to a Scottish father and a German-Irish mother. After other books, she wrote her first mystery in 1940 with Give a Corpse a Bad Name, which was published, like all that followed, under the pseudonym Elizabeth Ferrars (using her mother's maiden name). She was married secondly to Robert Brown, a university professor of botany, in 1951 she followed her husband around the university, moving to New York, then London and finally Edinburgh. An extremely prolific author, Ferrars wrote 71 novels and remained in business until her death in 1995. In 1953 she was a founder of the Crime Writers' Association (which she chaired in 1977) and in 1958 she joined the Detection Club.

She published three series with a fixed character and many novels without:

Toby Dyke series (1940 to 1942: 5 novels)

Virginia and Felix Freer series (1978 to 1992: 8 novels)

Andrew Basnett series (1983 to 1995: 8 novels)

Without fixed character (from 1945 to 1995 : 53 novels)

In the flood of novels, Ferrars perhaps the only rival by number of Christie (she should have surpassed her by one novel), and underestimated for many years, is in constant revaluation: despite the enormous number and therefore understandably the presence of unsuccessful novels, compared to other of her colleagues (for Christie the reference is a must), a much more open attitude to the new, and towards certain "new" aspects: rock music, sex, the beat generation. Even her works, up to the end, maintain a good background, despite their age: something that does not happen in the case of Agatha Christie, whose works of the last few years show clear signs of fatigue and lack of lucidity. For Ferrars, the constant level of her works, even in her old age, was the result of a very rigorous way of life, on which even her origins, partly German, had evident influences. Her best works, according to many, are roughly those from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Nonetheless, her first 5 novels, those by Toby Dyke, a contract journalist, & her friend George, an ex-criminal, are very good. She echoes, only in the unusual pairing, Chesterton's Father Brown & Flambeau. Toby is the classic amateur detective, of Van Dine's memory, but who is decisive for solving the cases is George: a kind of revenge of the proletariat (and of the "sidekick").

The novel, as one would expect from a British author, should have begun with an introduction, as usual in Christie's novels, in which the various characters are introduced, before the crime occurs: this practice, even if it is not present in all the Christian work, however, has a very marked evidence. Instead, in this novel by Ferrars, a novel which, as we have said, belongs to the 1950s, i.e. one of the most fruitful and inspiring periods, none of this happens. First of all, the crime takes place at least 100 pages from the beginning of the story, and in these 100 pages, the characters appear one after the other without a precise role; they are elusive characters, whose classification in the tragic plot is not well understood for a long time.


Meg and Marcus are a couple who live in a house that is too big for them, as they are childless: he is a writer, but he doesn't earn much and therefore she rents an apartment in the cottage to a guy who arrives by Jaguar and whose name is Gerald Chilby . This fellow soon begins to ask strange questions about the Priory, a house that was originally a convent then destroyed during the Reformation, and about who lives there.

To inherit it should have been Kate Hawthorne, a young woman who had been adopted by Miss Velden, mistress of the Priory and other properties. Except that her old woman dying, she had changed the will and named her nephew Richard as her heir, excluding the young woman from her inheritance. The reason? The love between Kate and Roger Cronan. Roger was married to Daphne who had left him for someone, and so he had found love in Kate's arms. But then Daphne had returned, and realizing that her husband had decided to divorce her, he had threatened to kill himself. Roger had kept Daphne, and Kate had left. But her aunt had died before her, and the will had been changed. Now this Gerald Chilby goes around asking for information on the Priory: why? And these questions are certainly not without purpose, if it is true that he himself – before he is attributed a role in the story, when one thinks he is just a shady or in any case ambiguous type – insinuates that Miss Velden's death was not bronchitis as everyone accepted to have been and is surprised that there hasn't been an investigation: "..An old lady, a country doctor, and everyone is fully satisfied" (chapter 6, pages 66-67), when no one has yet thought of exhuming his body. Who is he, and why is he asking these questions?




Moreover, the story is already ambiguous in itself, it becomes more so when it becomes known that someone has spread that Richard Velden, that is the one who inherited the priory with the annexed properties, is an imposter. The fact is that Richard left when he was a boy, and came back already a man. But he proposes a settlement on the property to Kate who doesn't expect it, and he always answers interested questions with precise memories that intersect with those of Kate and which answer the truth. So is it him or isn't it him? Doubt creeps into the reader, and involves another of whom nothing is known, Chilby: isn't it him? Chilby shouldn't know Richard, but then, from conjectures made and which we see later answer the truth, he ascertains that it was a phone call from Chilby to Richard that caused the upheaval, a phone call that was intercepted by Daphne, that no one had invited to the Priory, but who had entered.

Why is Richard deathly pale? What does Chilby know that's so important?

It is following this phone call that the infernal machine moves: while Chilby is out of the house, someone enters it and steals something that is vital to him. Chilby thinks it was Kate, but it was Daphne instead. From the moment this stolen document reaches him, her life is worth nothing and she is killed. Shortly afterwards Chilby will also be killed, with his gun.

Daphne will be found by Richard in the water, and he will notify the police at the home of the widow Thea Arkwright, who is in love with her.

At this point the investigations are entrusted to Inspector Wylie who, with uncommon gifts of sagacity, manages to come out of the quagmire of things said and unsaid, and through increasingly daring hypotheses that affect all the characters in the drama, manages to give a sense of things and to frame a premeditated criminal plan, which had had the end of killing the old lady, and to answer some questions: why had Kate destroyed the will that named her heir, and which lay half-burned on the floor near the fireplace? Who had burned him if it hadn't been Miss Velden as had first been assumed? Who had advised the lawyer of the will to change the will, if the phone call had taken place when the lady had passed away? What was Chilby holding that had cost him and Daphne their lives? To whom was referred a note from Chilby about her appointment at 7.30 with a certain D.V. ? one could hypothesize that it was Richard Valden because (I had assumed it before it was mentioned) in English Dick is diminutive of Richard. But.. accused of the crimes, he knows how to get out thanks to unassailable alibis.

In a park of possible suspects ranging from Roger, the husband who no longer loved his wife, to Kate, the rival in love, to Marcus, who sometimes bordered on moments of madness, to Richard, whose role is not understood, important even if he was far away in all the crimes even of his aunt, to Thea who is in love with Richard and could have killed for him, but that when she arrived in the village, Richard had not yet returned from abroad and therefore did not know him , Wylie will nail the evil killer.




The novel is beautiful, it is fair to say. I would say a small masterpiece.

The descriptions of the characters are all-round, withering. And the relationships between them are not only hinted at, but explored in all their possible characteristics. Yes, it is a deductive novel, but it is above all from a psychological point of view: if until Daphne's death, the 100 pages are themselves an introduction, a very long introduction, from that moment on, everything changes perspective, and they are the same characters, as the story goes on, to define the framework of the situation: while in the classic investigation, the witness is reticent and the detective has to discover, through a whole series of questions, the truth, that it comes to the surface little by little, and it is the main actors of the drama, Roger and Kate and Miss Harbottle, the village spinster who knows everything, who dispel the veil at least in its most hidden truths, which do not frame the murderer, but at least help to make the picture more outlined: the old lady, despite being against the love between Roger and Kate, did not want to disinherit her; the new will did not exist nor had it ever been thought of; Kate had found the sheet of the will half burned and she had burned it completely herself, after the discovery of her aunt's body, because by attributing to her a desire to disinherit her that she had not had, for ethical correctness she had wanted to respect a will of her aunt, which however there hadn't been. So for that alone Richard had been involved while he was overseas. In short, a great mess!

Elizabeth Ferrars turns out to be a writer of race, very underrated, compared to many other authors of her time. Of course, as I said in the introduction, having written more than seventy novels, inevitably some novels may not have turned out well, but, if you have been churning out great novels for thirty years, there must have been some reason! This however is a little gem.

The reason lies, also and not only in itself, as in the basic idea of Ferrars which polarizes all the novels starting from the end of the 40s, that is when abandoning the series of Toby and Dyke, which is directly connected to the age of gold, of the amateur detective, Ferrars evolves the structure of the British detective novel, much more than Christie did: essentially, he sets his dramas in country houses, where the gentry does not act, as in Christie's typical novels (but also by Heyer), but normal people, as Curtis Evans says : “..regular people" (in practice this means white, college educated professional types)". Curtis adds: "One Fifties crime fiction critic referred to these books as "country cottage" mysteries, distinguishing them from the country house mysteries of the Golden Age. Here you tend not to have stuffy gentry and comic servants and great mansions and weekend house parties and stolen jewels and bodies bludgeoned in lib raries, but college-educated, middle-class commuter professionals, modernized cottages and bungalows, and grumbling women from the village who come in once week to clean”. Basically "The mysteries of the country houses" of which the critics of the 50s spoke, opposing them to those of the golden age (which are still present in Christie's 50s novels) in which the class of the ancient landed aristocracy acted, connected to military figures, to the curate of the village, to ladies of good society engaged in charitable actions, are those typical of Ferrars' novels in which a society operates which, if anything, is based on people with degrees, who make their way into society: the small bourgeoisie becoming average, compared to the old very conservative small landed aristocracy. It is essentially the middle class, the one already used by Ellery Queen. It's as if Ferrars, even using the typical means of British thriller (the murder in a country house or cottage, if you prefer, the return of the heir, the past abroad of some characters of whom little is known ) wanted to renew it by drawing on the great tradition of the Yankee.


Pietro De Palma