The Album (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1933)

The Crescent is a small gated community of old money families, or at least what had been old money before the market crash. Life there exists in virtual stasis, each day following the exact same script it’s followed for as long as Lou Hall can remember, until one day old Mrs. Lancaster is found hacked to death with an axe. The “why” of the murder seems clear enough, as Mrs. Lancaster had grown paranoid of banks and began hoarding gold in a chest under her bed — the chest that now contains nothing but lead dress weights. It’s the “who” that’s the puzzler. The families of Crescent, despite being more or less interconnected, are a reserved and secretive lot. Lou’s lived next door to the Lancasters her whole life and barely knows them. The police, as well as private criminologist Herbert Dean, have their work cut out for them in unraveling this murder and the series of seemingly inexplicable murders that follow it.

In classic had-I-but-known style, the story hinges on a single fact that links all the disparate plot points together and at once explains everything. If only the Crescent’s “Great Secret” has been known sooner, the tragedy might have been averted. As far as mystery novels go, had-I-but-knowns are more difficult than who-dun-its, in that solving them isn’t about simple deduction — it requires rather a lot more lateral thinking. The Album‘s reveal seems to come out of the blue when you first reach it but makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Inscription: Stamped in red ink on the back endpaper, “The Eatonia Tea Room & —Sh—”. The stamp was unevenly inked and the second half is too faint to read but it probably says “Gift Shop”.

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