RogerBW's Blog

Three Men and a Maid, Robert Fraser 04 December 2014

1907; romantic melodrama-cum-mystery story. Who killed Robert Courthope? Why did Philip Warren flee from the scene?

This is a fascinating book, showing just how much genre has become a straitjacket in recent years. The opening is pure melodrama: there is Marjorie, a Good Girl of low status, desired by Robert Courthope the ageing bibulous squire, James Courthope his cousin and heir (a Bad Man), and Philip Warren the somewhat ineffectual young nephew of the vicar. In order that Robert not pursue Marjorie, James arranges for her and Philip to be fatally compromised by being locked unchaperoned in a ruined tower, so that he must propose marriage to her.

But James has reckoned without Robert's and Philip's old-fashioned senses of chivalry, which leads them to fight a duel over Marjorie, the loser to have nothing to do with her for five years. Philip loses, and leaves for the London train. But soon afterwards Robert is found dead, pinned to the ground by a rapier.

Matters have started to progress further down the melodramatic route, with lurkings in the ruins, substituted wills, and other such stuff, when everything suddenly changes: the police arrive from London in the person of the excellent Detective Inspector Webster. He's a literary 'tec of the post-Holmesian school, and quite specifically has no truck with the romantic nonsense of Philip:

"I mean, of course, that she was in no way responsible for the killing of Robert Courthope, so I pray you do not distress me needlessly by mentioning her name."

"Exactly. You will suffer in silence, like what's-his-name in Tennyson's poem. Oh, I remember. Geraint, he was called. Tell you what, Mr. Warren, you ought to be turned loose in a forest, in a cast-iron suit, there to strike dead every man you met, all for the sake of some fair lady pent in donjon keep. You are born too late. This is the twentieth century, not the twelfth. By the way, you want another match."

Some of this huge change in style may be a result of the preferences of the book's authors: "Robert Fraser" is a composite of Louis Tracy, a prolific retired army officer who specialised in crime stories and early Invasion Literature, and M. P. Shiel, who preferred experimental science fiction but wrote crime to keep the wolf from the door. They probably could have written a romance, but crime was clearly more interesting.

Webster has no need for gimmicks, except for one: he works out the crimes in miniature, using lead figurines marked with the names of the principals, as a means of determining who could have been where at any given time.

On the map he staged a number of small leaden figures, types of soldiers and army nurses which had served many purposes in their day. For these were Webster's puppets when he tried to reconstruct a crime, and every little mannikin had been labeled with names famous in the annals of Scotland Yard. Their present titles were familiar enough. Each leaden base was gummed to a piece of cardboard, on which was written "Philip," or "Robert," or "Marjorie," or "James," or "Hannah," as the case might be.

(The wargamer and role-player in me wants to know "what scale, and were they painted".)

The confounding factor throughout this story is Hannah, Marjorie's older and harder sister, who regards herself as James' bride-to-be. (James has different opinions on this matter at different times.) As is proper in a mystery, it is the actions of the bad people which cause the story: but it's not at all obvious just who caused each problem, or how it came to happen, and they're not by any means united in purpose. There's more than just a murder to be solved, and the series of events as finally reconstructed is entirely in keeping with the personalities of each character as we've seen them drawn. This isn't a traditional problem-solving mystery of the "who could have been where at which time" sort, but rather one in which you need to work out who might have done a particular action, and who else couldn't because they're not the sort of person who would.

Particularly after the somewhat turgid start, this is a surprisingly refreshing and lightly-written story, never afraid to poke fun at itself or at the dramatic conventions.

"No, not the taper," said Webster. "There is a wooden match. Wax gives such a nasty taste to tobacco."

Philip almost smiled. The new order of detective at Scotland Yard was outside his ken.

This book was a recommendation from Lyz at A Course of Steady Reading. It is freely available as etext, for example at manybooks.

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