The Double Chance (J.S. Fletcher, 1928)

The previous J.S. Fletcher novel I read, The Three Days’ Terror, began as a straight-forward mystery novel but, by the end, had slowly morphed into a gothic horror. The Double Chance stays its course — it’s a simple murder mystery from the golden age of detective fiction. That said, it isn’t exactly a whodunit. There aren’t any clues to piece together in discovering what really happened, the wrongly accused man is never presented as anything but wrongly accused, and in all honesty, there’s no suspense whatsoever as the story unfolds.

Sir Robert Mannersley owns a coal mine that has made him quite a wealthy man. His daughter, Phillipa, is in love with her ne’er-do-well cousin, Clinton Mannersley. Clinton has been in prison these past three years for forging a check from Sir Robert but has recently escaped. He appears one night to plead his innocence to Sir Robert in person, but instead finds the great man murdered in his study.

It looks bad for Clinton, but Inspector Cortelyou, the famed Scotland Yard detective, believes another man committed both the current murder and the previous forgery. I don’t mind spoiling it (as Cortelyou certainly doesn’t): he thinks it’s  Marshall Stead, chief cashier at the colliery. And… it is, but only after a fashion. Cortelyou was wrong in that Stead himself didn’t kill Sir Robert. A stranger did in a fit of madness. It was a lucky chance for Stead, who had been embezzling from his employer for years and was growing paranoid of being detected. In fact, it was a doubly lucky chance, as Stead was also angling for a way to steal the diamonds Sir Robert kept locked in his safe and this provided the perfect opportunity.

The Twenty-Fourth of June (Grace S. Richmond, 1914)

Matthew Kendrick sends his grandson Richard to the home of his old friend Judge Calvin Gray with a message. Old Kendrick had built up a great department store and made himself immensely rich in the process; Young Kendrick lives lazily off those riches. Rich’s parents had both died when he was very young and he has no memory of a family like the one he finds gathered around the Grays’ hearth. He’s struck by it in general and by one of its members in particular: Roberta, Gray’s niece. Gray, whose eyesight is weakening with age, is in search of a secretary to help him with his research. In an uncharacteristic but not inexplicable move, Rich applies for the job. Rob, on learning who Rich is, dislikes him on principle. Though of no mean background herself, she values hard work and has no use for idle wealth. It will be an uphill battle for Rich to win her over.

Rich meets his old college friend Hugh Benson. Benson has recently inherited his father’s small-town store and is not doing well financially. Rich forms a partnership with Benson, and with the help of an experienced manager, they set out to rebuild the business. Kendrick, who had quietly harbored his own misgivings about his grandson’s idleness, sees in this the beginnings of a new man. Rob is not so easily swayed. That winter, he had boldly declared his love for her. While she didn’t reject him out of hand, she postponed her answer until Midsummer Day — the 24th of June — fully believing that both Rich’s current occupation and his infatuation with her were only a caprice and would be forgotten long before the months had passed.

She underestimated Rich’s honesty on both counts, but by the time the appointed day arrives, she has a new understanding of him and is ready to return his love.

Red Sky at Morning (Margaret Kennedy, 1927)

William and Emily are the orphaned children of Norman Crowne. Crowne was a poetic genius, but not without scandal. He was involved in a murder, and although not convicted, everyone knows he was guilty. The children are raised by their aunt Catherine Frobisher alongside their cousins, Trevor and Charlotte. Charles Frobisher, Catherine’s late husband, had been a poet himself — equal to Shakespeare in the widow’s mind, if not in anyone else’s. All four children fancy themselves to be writers as well. William and Emily have been left independently wealthy and can do what they please, but Trevor and Charlotte are at the mercy of their mother, who sees in them not the slightest talent. As they grow older, their relationship with their mother becomes more strained.

William and Emily move out. They buy a house together and live like grown-up children, writing for themselves with no real intent of ever actually publishing anything. Trevor leaves as well and, motivated by rebelliousness more than anything else, moves into circles his Little England mother would rather pretend didn’t exist. One of his new friends is Tilli, an actress and something of a gold-digger. Tilli is attracted to Trevor, but her main interest in him came from his tales of Monk’s Hall, his mother’s ancestral home, which he had always expected to inherit some day. That dream seems to be dashed now that its present owner, his uncle Bobbie, has been forced to sell it. William, under pressure from Trevor, buys the old house with the intent of turning it into some sort of ill-thought-out communist collective for struggling artists. Really, though, Trevor just wants to live there.

Tilli tries another attack. She persuades a theatrical producer to stage one of WIlliam’s unpublished plays, starring in it herself. The play is produced and, though well attended, it is roundly panned. Emily is affected more than William — realizing that, no matter what they do, they will always be known as Norman Crowne’s children and will always be made a spectacle of for that reason. To escape from herself, she flees into marriage with a dull village preacher. Alone, William is lost and rather easily falls prey to Tilli. They’re married and take up residence at Monk’s Hall along with Trevor and his friends. Tilli finds life at Monk’s Hall to be a living hell, but her reason for staying is that she’s still attracted to Trevor.

The affair is rather well known, but William turns a blind eye until Sally forces him to act. (I haven’t touched on Sally’s subplot: in short, she’s the mistress of Trevor’s friend Nigel and is attacking Trevor to get revenge on his mother, who continually snubs and belittles her for for what she considers to be an affront to decency.) That night, William goes to confront Tilli and finds her and Trevor together. William chases Trevor out of the house and into the dark countryside. A shot rings out. William is found by the other housemates, quite distracted, babbling about dropping his gun and wanting to stop and search for it. Some time later, they discover Trevor, mortally wounded. He tells his sister that he and William had been chasing a poacher, that he had tripped while holding William’s gun, and that he had accidentally shot himself. He makes sure before he dies that this is the story they must all repeat.

What Will He Do With It? (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1858)

As I was reaching the end of this book, I began to get worried. How was I going to summarize this? What will I do with it?* It’s easy to boil down an action-based plot, but in terms of pure action, almost nothing happens here. Near all of the novel is devoted to character study and to a rumination on the concept of pride. Further complicating summary, what does happen, happens non-linearly. And further still, when I say “book”, what I mean to say is twelve books — What Will He Do With It? is a very long work.

In the barest outline, Guy Darrell wants to restore his family’s fallen name. His only heir, a distant cousin named Lionel Haughton, is in love with Sophy Waife, the granddaughter of a mysterious traveling performer. It comes out that her grandfather is the convicted felon William Losely and that Sophy may be the child of Darrell’s estranged daughter Matilda — both damning in Darrell’s eye. Darrell struggles to overcome his pride for the sake for Lionel’s happiness.

Those few lines don’t scratch the surface of What Will He Do With It?, but it was either write that, or write page after page on the book’s several dozen characters and how they intersect.

* Yes, Bulwer-Lytton does that many, many, many times throughout the narrative, small caps and all