Duchlan 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 story 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!