Henry Watson, a wannabe novelist, is in search of a new apartment and a roommate and his friend suggests he visit Simon Rolfe who is also in search of new digs. The two meet and Watson can't help but be disturbed by Rolfe's emulation of a certain fictional detective. Rolfe has a mysterious origin that is never fully explained, seems to be independently wealthy, plays the violin, smokes a pipe, lounges around in a smoking jacket, and sees clients with puzzling problems which he solves for a modest fee and does so in a single afternoon. Bonney has a bit too cutely paid homage to Conan Doyle while at the same time allowing his Sherlock dopplegänger to disparage the entire canon in a four page diatribe in which he deconstructs several of the stories as pathetically obvious. Once this tirade is out of the way the story can take place front and center and we have a classic Golden Age locked room populated by ex-vaudeville performers who are stranded in a snowbound house somewhere in upstate New York.
Wicked philandering dancer Lucille Divine is found stabbed in the back in her locked bedroom at the home of Champ Lister. All of Lister's guests and servants were downstairs at the time she screamed, they rush upstairs, find Lister in the hallway at the wrong door, then break down Lucille's door and find her in her last gasps. One man goes to her tries to help her and hears her say "It was the Champ..." Then she expires. Has she verbally fingered her killer? Lister denies he had anything to do with her death. He didn't even know she was in this other bedroom. He went to the bedroom across the hallway where she usually stayed.
|Young Joseph L Bonney|
looking suitably nerdy
on the DJ rear cover
Rolfe fancies himself a detective of psychology who finds this case with no physical evidence right up his alley. He approaches detective work from a different angle paying attention subtleties in language and behavior. Though he claims to use deduction most of his conclusions are the result of induction. Still Bonney is clever in how he allows Rolfe to expose lies and get the suspects to reveal things they'd rather keep hidden. I was impressed with the dying clue bit which is very reminiscent of several Queen books. However, in the end Bonney's explanation is a bit of a stretch. No matter how many people I polled I couldn't get one person to duplicate what he says happened.
Rolfe is also irritatingly an obsessive student of the French philosopher Montaigne who he quotes repeatedly through the book. Only one quote seems to have anything to do with his work as a detective: "I do not understand; I pause, I examine." This might serve as Rolfe's (or any worthwhile detective's) mantra.
In the end it's a intricately detailed investigation, perhaps overly so in the manner of Queen and Van Dine, with Rolfe sharing the stage with Inspector Charles King and a slew of policemen put on guard throughout the household. In a neat touch Henry Watson (Rolfe actually addresses him as "My dear Watson" too many times) provides quite by accident one of the key observations. The manner in which the crime is committed is perhaps one of the wickedest I've encountered in a American mystery novel of this era. there is, of course, another bizarre murder means, not quite as original as Bonney may think it is. This method belongs to a subset of murder means that I can group into Death by... OH! Better not mention that. But it has been used in the work of Carr as Carter Dickson, Burton Stevenson, the Coles, and two obscure books by William Morton, and George R. Fox, all of those books and stories pre-dating Bonney's novel. Was the murder means yet another, albeit obscure, homage?
This is an interesting and engaging read in the locked room subgenre. I thought for sure that I had pegged the killer and figured out how Lucille was done in. I also thought I had figured out the dying clue. But I was wrong on all counts. It all turned out to be quite a surprise, though I think a bit flawed.
Having many of the suspects come from the world of vaudeville allows for a slew of red herrings, two of which I fell for and one which did not turn up at all. I was disappointed Bonney didn't include the missing aspect. It would have fit in perfectly with the dying clue. Missed opportunity! You can expect at least one knife thrower to show up in the cast. After all, knife throwing and vaudeville go hand in hand in the mystery novel. If you aren't acquainted with this hoary cliche of detective novels read my post on the ultimate knife throwing murder mystery here.