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.

Matter 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.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Search
Archive
Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio tech base commerce battletech beer boardgaming bookmonth chain of command children chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 existential risk falklands war fandom fantasy film firefly first world war flash point food garmin drive gazebo geodata gurps gurps 101 harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life kickstarter learn to play leaving earth linux mecha museum mystery naval non-fiction one for the brow opera perl photography podcast politics powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha quantum rail ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1