Murder of a Lady (1931) by Anthony Wynne

mm.jpgDuchlan Castle is a somber and foreboding place, locating in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. One night, the body of the castle’s matriarch, Mary Gregor, is found in her locked bedroom. A grotesque stab wound covers her shoulder, but the lack of blood seemingly proves that the assailant had waited for her to die, before removing the weapon and disappearing, making the entire situation all the more impossible. A small remains on Mary’s body, a silver fish scale, recalling the legend of the Swimmers – humanoid fish creatures that have a thirst for blood, especially when acting out of revenge. Luckily for the investigators, the gifted amateur Dr. Hailey is visiting the area, and given his reputation for resolving miraculous problems, he is called on to help the investigation. Soon, the true character of Mary arises as the investigation increases, and potential suspects pile up, with several more impossible murders following before we reach the inevitable conclusion.

The character of Mary Gregor is the aspect of this story that truly shines, and it’s the first thing I noted when I started reading. Usually, a murder victim is confined to being a piece of cardboard, a soundboard for the much more interesting aspects of how? or why? Here, Mary Gregor is the best realized character, and while she seems like a person you would never suspect to be a murder victim, her character emerges. We get the image of a woman feed by jealousy and her own subtle cruelty, a character just as evil as an potential murderer and much more willing to do harm than most of them. If anyone is the true evil behind the plot, it is her, and her spirit hangs over the castle while forming most of the atmosphere and in the end she becomes one of the most candid pieces of characterization I’ve ever witnessed, a model of how hypocrisy and wayward motives corrupt a person.

Beside’s Mary Gregor, we are treated to several other well developed characters. Eoghan and Oonagh (the nephew of Mary and his wife) marriage is wonderfully examined, and while both are very high strung, there is genuine emotion behind their interactions and overall personalities. Dr. McDonald is also a interesting portrait of a man in torrid love, while the actually Lord of Duchlan’s weakness of character becomes a important point as the story progresses. Several of the servants are even given proper storyline’s, and one especially has a breath of life behind them. Everyone in the story is somehow affected by Mary’s manipulation and controlling personality, even in her death. Her power over the castle is broken at the start of the story, and yet it still remains, her death always seems to be haunting everyone, as if her spirit has possessed every object, living or inanimate, in the castle. A testament to just how well Wynne develops and examines how a murder victim can still live on after death!

Mary Gregor’s murder is one of the most interesting impossible scenarios I’ve encountered in the past year. Most bare boned locked room murders hold little interest for me, but the major impossible crime here is lovingly realized and always mysterious, with the added aspects of the scale and lack of blood adding to the intrigue, keeping the dds.jpgstory consistently fresh. The other murder’s have their strong points; one happens early on and definitely works, but the others come extremely late and are barely given a few pages to fully toil and bubble. They fall flat in comparison to the other two, even if they are just as tantalizing as they are. The eventual solution(s) to the impossible crimes are very good, being simplistic and satisfying. They make use of the specific circumstances surrounding the crimes while utilizing the legend of the Swimmers to fully build them up, and you can’t help but kick yourself after some of the details are explained. There even is a wonderful last line reveal that explains a certain clue, and it’s truly show stopping.

And on the subject of the Swimmers, I need to make a certain observation. Wynne doesn’t put as much focus on the creatures as I had assumed he would have based on the books summary. Instead of a constant plot thread involving them, we get a few mentions in the beginning and near the end, with nothing truly arising from their existence, no atmosphere, terror, horror. All things you would expect, but are things that are sadly lacking.

In terms of other flaws, I have two. The melodrama here is milked to the extreme. Sections of the text can become almost unreadable due to the verbosity and absurd richness of the language, and situations you would expect from a cheap thriller pop up constantly to create new plot threads, making you slug through chunks of the text, causing lulls in reading. I’ve heard that Wynne wrote books with much more melodrama, but even here it’s almost stifling. I love a bit of melodrama here and there, it can spice up the narrative and get things going while keeping me entertained, but there’s a fine line between subtle use and excess, and Wynne crosses it multiple times.

The other flaw is how rushed the ending of the book is. One second we’ve hit the third murder and ten pages later the resolution occurs. It happens suddenly, without warning, and it leaves you feeling a bit hollow, as you would expect much more sustenance after nearly 280 pages of reading. However, the explanation is truly marvelous, and we’re treated to a delightful and very well hidden culprit, who becomes much more colored and characterized as we learn of their motivations and reasoning behind the crime. It’s quite a brilliant solution overall, and Wynne has some very fun reveals sprinkled throughout, and though some of the psychology is a bit wonky, it doesn’t detract from the resolution at all.

However, these flaws do little in detracting the enjoyment I got from reading the story. There’s something about Wynne’s writing that I really enjoy, and his constant usage of the impossible crime also appeals to my general taste’s in the genre. Wynne may write like a Victorian, but he writes and plots in a Victorian manner that isn’t overbearing, and can instead feel breezy at times. Perhaps at odds with my statement with melodrama, but in the end those occurrences are outweighed by the fun I had in the end. Wynne was a author who was both in the past, and in the present, and it’s a interesting mixture when combined with the media form that is the detective story.

In summation, while many people have been turned off of Wynne, I’m prepared to spend egregious amounts of money in order to source a few more of his tome’s. He may not be the greatest detective story writer ever, but in Murder of a Lady he shines, and I have a feeling that I’ll be trying him out again very soon. ⅘ for this one, and for my next review I think I’ll attempt to read something by my favorite mystery writer in existence. Who? You’ll all find out soon enough!

 

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7 thoughts on “Murder of a Lady (1931) by Anthony Wynne

  1. I pretty much agree with everything you had to say about the plot and story. A great series of original, but ultimately simple, impossible crimes and the lore of the Swimmers should have been put to better use. Just imagine what Carr could have done with that plot-thread! If you want to see some real Wynne dramatics, you should try to get your hands on The Green Knife, another good series of locked room murders, but the Victorian-era dramatics are dialed up to the max in the final chapter. Still liked it though and deserves to be reprinted.

    By the way, I read this book under its original title, The Silver Scale Mystery, which had a library card from 1931 glued on the inside showing it had been checked out over thirty times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll try to hunt it down when the next opportunity presents itself, but right now I believe that I’ll be reading Death Out of The Night or The Red Scar next 😄

      A fascinating piece of minutiae, especially given that 30 check outs for a book that rare and obscure reveals just how much golden age crime fiction was popular in that time!

      Like

  2. The melodrama here is milked to the extreme. Sections of the text can become almost unreadable due to the verbosity and absurd richness of the language

    Yeah, I agree completely — at times this is so mired in ladling on the atmosphere and ominous portends that it forgets to tell its story. Still, like you, I’d be interested to read more Wynne, especially after TomCat and John Norris have spoken so highly of some of his other books. Unlike you I’m not willing to spend large amounts of money to do so, but I wish you good luck and wonderful reading on your Wynne adventure…I’ll be watching closely!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wynne is an author with a huge catalog of impossibilities, especially those of the invisible agent variety, and its hard for any locked room fanatic to not develop an interest in him after a bit of reading/research.

      I do wish that some of his books would pop up at more affordable prices, given how the cheapest book that isn’t a reprint is around 30 dollars. With time and patience, I’m sure I’ll get around to reading more obscure ones, but who knows?

      Like

  3. I don’t know how this one flew under my radar, although it seems that I’ve probably read several reviews of this at other blogs given the dates that they were posted. Anyway, thanks for raising this to my attention – the impossibilities sound right up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No problem, connoisseurs of impossible crime are a breed that require a lot of suggestions, so I’m sure you’ll bring some book to my attention that I’ll salivate over for several months 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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