A lawyer is found dead in his office. Some valuables have been stolen and it initially appears to have been a burglary gone wrong, but then it comes to light that perhaps this was an unrelated crime or even a diversion, as the real reason the lawyer was killed seems to have been to cover-up a prominent businessman’s underhanded financial dealings. But then still more comes to light and maybe it was a robbery after all. It was thought that only a gold watch and a couple hundred pounds were missing. Nobody knew of the £50,000 in cash that the lawyer secretly had on him. And then yet more comes to light (it keeps coming until the second to last chapter in fact, making this a very difficult mystery to “play along at home” with — you can’t solve it any quicker than it solves itself) that appears to link those two crimes together through a person the investigators least suspect.
Inscription: “H.F. Luicolu, Haterville, N.C.”, on the inside front cover.
A collection of short stories that starts out decently but just seems to get worse and worse as it goes along. The stories that are either weird tales or at least have strong supernatural elements, like “The Flat on the Fourth Floor” or “The Rievault Crucifix”, are the best in opinion. The plots themselves may be simplistic and formulaic, but they have a good atmosphere and some creepy imagery. This extends to a lesser degree to a couple of the stories that aren’t supernatural at all but do have an air of unexplained mystery, like “The Buttertubs Pass” and the titular “Behind the Monocle”.
Most of the stories in this collection aren’t like these, though. The majority are… I’m not quite sure what to call them — it’s a long build-up that ends with a vague joke. They’re not exactly shaggy dog stories. With shaggy dog stories, the humor comes from the long, rambling set-up that never actually reaches a punchline. These stories have punchlines, it’s just that by the time you get to one, you’ve totally lost interest.
Then there are stories like “The Wheatstack” and “The Coming of a Comet”, that, were they expanded into novels, I actually think could have been pretty good, but in short-story form, they just don’t manage to do much of anything with their ideas.
Stevenege, the celebrated detective, is on vacation in the small English town of Alanschester. His aim is to relax, but he isn’t there 24 hours before he stumbles across the body of a man evidently murdered in the woods just outside of the village. Further, the set of siege coins (there’s a story there, but never mind, all that matters is that they’re valuable antiques) held by the local museum has been stolen. It appears that the dead man stole the coins and was then killed for them. Suspicions fall on Whatmore, the curator of the museum. He’s arrested but quickly and easily escapes, assisted by someone for reasons unknown.
It’s starting to look like a setup to Stevenege — like the whole town’s in on it. A shiftier bunch he’s never met, with several who seem to know much more than they’re letting on. But then Stevenege gets some help… a lot of help, actually. Too many cooks, the old saw goes, but this novel’s spoiled by too many detectives. At one point, there’s no fewer than six professionals and amateurs weighing in, including a mystery author.
After being tipped-off, Stevenege recaptures Whatmore, but is now convinced that he’s only a patsy. Whatmore makes a full confession, which doesn’t amount to much since he had nothing to do with either crime, but it leads to following the evidence trail to a new location and culprit… one that the reader probably suspected all along because it was blindingly obvious and hoped would be subverted with a clever twist at the end, but no. I’ll stand by J.S. Fletcher being a competent enough writer, but the man had no talent at all for detective fiction.
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.
A secret society issues a demand on the British government for £100 million with the threat that, if they are denied, they will begin destroying all the major cities of Europe. At first, the demand is ignored as a hoax or the ravings of madmen, then suddenly a large part of London is reduced to ashes by means of a chemical explosive unknown to all of the nation’s top scientists.
Meanwhile, a mysterious French count ingratiates himself with an English cabinet member and, under the guise of removing them to a place of safety outside of London, abducts his daughter and son-in-law.
There are tantalizing clues scattered about and the corners of the mystery are chipped away, but don’t expect some detective character to step forward and explain everything at the end. The characters who survive learn very little of what has happened or why it happened and neither does the reader.
The novel begins as would a traditional mystery, but as it progresses, it becomes more of a gothic horror.