Laurence Vining is an arrogant, supercilious wanna-be criminologist who dabbles in solving crimes with the aid of his sidekick Dr. Benjamin Willing (no relation to psychiatrist Basil, BTW). After recently receiving more accolades from local newspapers for his capture of the killer in the notorious "Shop Murder" he returns home to find a letter from someone signing herself "Red Hat" who desperately needs his help. The letter instructs Vining to meet her in the Hyde Park tube station the following day at 3:25 PM and seek her out near the elevators. She'll be wearing a red hat, of course. Vining asks Dr Willing if he wants to join him, but Willing declines. That afternoon Vining is discovered stabbed, a ceremonial Malaysian dagger sticking out of his back, after descending alone in the elevator at Hyde Park station. There were only two people present at the time and both were on the platform to witness Vining falling out of the elevator. No one was inside the elevator and no one was on the upper level from where he descended. How was it done?
|The Scene of the Crime - one of three diagrams in the book (click to enlarge)|
I was expecting that Dr. Wiling would take over as the main sleuth having always lived int he shadow of Laurence Vining. But it is the shrewd and intolerant Inspector Widgeon who takes charge of the case and will solve the complicated murder. Widgeon suffers no fools gladly often rudely interrupting long-winded suspects and urging them to get to their point quickly.
|DJ illustration from 1st US edition, Lippincott (1929)|
The whole book is something of a send-up of the traditional detective novel. The amateur sleuth is the victim, the sidekick disappears into the background becoming almost invisible, the policeman sleuth is brusque and far from gentlemanly, and several of the suspects are presented as burlesques of the stereotypes found in the genre. While there is a trace of comedy here the book is not intended as a parody. The complexity of the plot, the singularity of the murder method, and the motive are all deadly serious at heart.Most impressive to me was discovering how meticulous the murder was planned. Not only was the deed itself thought out to the last detail, but all variations of the "impossibility" being ruined by unexpected tube passengers, ill timing of the elevators, absence of the lift man who opens the elevator doors, etc. were all taken into consideration so that the actual murder would only take place in the presence of two specific witnesses and no one else. If anything occurred to prevent this from happening the plan would be abandoned. It's truly a bravura performance on the part of Thomas.
This is the third book in the Perilous Policemen portion of my adventure in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Below are the other titles I have read so far in which the primary investigator is a policeman. Five more will follow and then I'll move on to Part Two of my three part challenge.
Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King