“’Beastly mess the place seems to be in,’ grumbled Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton, looking round the room with a disgusted air.
“’Well, if you will give balls you have to put up with the aftermath,’ said Dicky, his younger brother, screwing his monocle in his left eye as he spoke.
“Dicky was already seated at the table devouring kidneys and bacon with apparent relish.”
This is how Annie Haynes’ 1929 mystery Who Killed Charmian Karslake? opens. I counted about six clichés right there: the country house setting, just as we found at the beginning of E.R. Punshon’s Ten Star Clues, the bluff lord and his monocled fop of a younger brother sitting down to a heavy English breakfast the morning after a ball. All we need next is a murder to interrupt the proceedings. But what’s this? Here comes Brook, butler at Hepton Abbey, with news that the house’s celebrated guest, actress Charmian Karslake, cannot be roused behind the locked door of her bedroom.
Frankly, the more intriguing mystery here is the story of Annie Haynes herself, a sickly woman whose friendship with a noted feminist named Ada Heather-Bigg, whose backing may have helped Haynes publish twelve mystery novels, two of them posthumously (including this one). I was intrigued by the story of Haynes that Curtis Evans unfolded in his blog, The Passing Tramp, (http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2013/07/lost-ladies-of-mystery-fiction-annie.html ) and continued in the introduction to this novel. So I selected my favorite title from amongst the eight that have been reissued by Dean Street Press and settled down to read – and hopefully enjoy – another lost mystery from the Golden Age. Evidently, during her lifetime, Haynes enjoyed great popularity and was, at least for a time as Curtis writes in his introduction, “the main British female competitor to Agatha Christie.” I have to say that the fact that Christie and Haynes were the only female mystery writers to be published by The Bodley Head and that this company embraced Haynes while Christie did everything she could to get out of a bad deal – all this made me a bit leery as I approached this book. I fear my forebodings were not without cause.
It’s hard not to compare this novel to the Punshon mystery I just read (and reviewed previously: ) Both involve a noble family, a country estate, and murder. The similarity ends there, however, for a number of reasons. First off, Haynes’ book feels more like a police procedural than a closed circle mystery. The focus here is largely on Detective Inspector Stoddart and his assistant Alfred Harbord. They have a likable relationship, and Harbord is hardly a lesser entity than his boss in terms of intellect and ability. Very little time is spent at the mansion interviewing the suspects. Instead, Stoddart and Harbord move about between the village of Hepton and London, trying to find out just who Charmian Karslake was and what the meaning of a certain overheard conversation might signify.
Frankly, their detective work did not strike me as particularly impressive or thrilling, just lucky. (Every place Stoddart enters provides information. Whenever he needs to talk to somebody, that person can be found walking down the road in the Inspector’s direction.) And as they scurry about, Haynes springs more and more of those clichés that I fear have given Golden Age writers a bad name. As late as 1929, Hayne’s writing style seems Victorian, both in the turns of phrase, the melodramatic trappings, even the characters’ names that seem straight out of Dickens. There’s the American millionaire, Silas P. Juggs, who made his fortune in canned soup and pushes his way about the scene while everyone around him rolls their eyes. Worse even is Charmian’s French maid, Celestine Dubois, whom Haynes endows with an accent that could spread hard cheese:
“Me! Me! I know nosin – nosin at all. Two days ago Mees Karslake, she tell me to pack her sings for dis ball, and I am pleased, for it is triste always in this land of fogs, when one goes out novere. But if I had known – “
You get the idea. Compared to her, Christie’s way with foreigners is positively enlightened. Here’s a speech under similar circumstances, made by Louise Bourget, Linnet Doyle’s French maid in Christie’s Death on the Nile:
“What could I have seen or heard? I was on the deck below. My cabin, it was on the other side of the boat, even. It is impossible that I should have heard anything. Naturally if I had been unable to sleep, if I had mounted the stairs, then perhaps I might have seen this assassin, this monster, enter or leave Madame’s cabin . . . “
The villagers of Hepton speak with their own thick patois as well, and Dicky Penn-Moreton sounds (and looks) a great deal like Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen’s dummy. The stilted dialogue is crammed to the gills with 1920’s slang, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that Haynes really didn’t know who or what she was writing about. I want to say that at least a reader can get a sense of the times, but these people – the rich, the poor, the police – all failed to convince me.
Worse than that, the mystery plot amounted to too little: the clueing was simplistic, and the actions and reactions of characters often bordered on the nonsensical. To take just one example, one has to ask oneself why, mere days after a murder, the detective in charge would let all the suspects leave town – even the country! – just so he could have a free hand in searching the premises. Doesn’t Scotland Yard get to search wherever they want with impunity? Ah, what do I know?
The hackneyed clichés – and I have to believe that some of these were clichés even in 1929 – continue right till the end, and I would like nothing better than to discuss this ending with someone, but I’ve spoiled enough. Suffice it to say that rules are broken and fair play flies out the window, as far as I am concerned.
Despite some minor reservations with Ten Star Clues, I enjoyed the humor of that book and the characterization of its detective, Bobby Owen. That book also had the distinct advantage of being grounded in a specific time period, right before World War II. Charmian Karslake lacked that sort of specificity, and the depictions of village life, the aristocracy, and the theatre world seemed lacked any sense of realism. I’m not sure I will turn to Annie Haynes again anytime soon. If, however, somebody has a particular title they wish to recommend, I’d be happy to listen.
In my final post of old-time mysteries that Curtis recommended, I have saved the best for last! In fact, the next book is so wonderful that I think the greatest mystery is how this author could have ever been forgotten! See you next time!