The King Versus Wargrave (J.S. Fletcher, 1924)

Left an orphan in Italy, Marco Graffi calls his granddaughter Gemma Graffi to come live with him in London. She doesn’t like it one bit and repeatedly begs to go back. One night, Gemma disappears and Marco is found stabbed to death. The coroner’s quest jury finds her guilty of his murder and a warrant is put out should she ever be discovered.

Some years later, Lady Wargrave makes a pilgrimage to her country seat with her son, the three year old Baronet of Wargrave. She’s not English — the late baronet married abroad to an Italian woman. I think you know where this is going. A man named Di Spada discovers who she is and tries to blackmail her into marrying him. The wedding is broken up by an arrest — the police found out, too.

Fairly clear who the murder was. There was the one red herring of Ottilia Morro, the girl who helped Gemma to escape to Italy, but she totally lacked a motive.

Inscription: on the front flyleaf, “The Half Mast murder, + this one, are old Books. Hope you’ll enjoy reading them. P.D.”

Perris of the Cherry Trees (J.S. Fletcher, 1913)

Rhoda married Perris because he had a farm and £500. Two years later and the money’s gone and they’re days from eviction. Rhoda appeals to Taffendale, a prosperous large farmer and lime quarry owner. He lends Rhoda the money to make their rent and to improve the farm with the understanding that he’s loaning it to her, not to Perris. Perris isn’t a bad worker, but he needs a heavy-handed boss or else he’ll go to rack and ruin. With Rhoda at the helm, the farm does turn around and becomes profitable. Trouble is, she and Taffendale have fallen in love. A former laborer on their farm with an axe to grind tells Perris one evening. I’m unclear what the goal was, but he winds up throttled to death at the bottom of a disused well. Not many days later, Perris liquidates all he can and vanishes.

Rumors mount in the small village. The general consensus is that Rhoda killed Perris so that she might marry Taffendale (the absence of a body notwithstanding) and the laborer as well (his body is found). It reaches the point that a warrant for Rhoda’s arrest is issued but she doesn’t reach the station before Perris himself puts in an appearance. He’d left for London with the vague idea that abandonment was the same as divorce and that Rhoda and Taffendale would have married — he was under no illusion that she loved him. Not much of a reader, he’d heard nothing of her being accused of multiple murders, but now he’s come to confess his guilt.

He refuses a trial and things seemed rather resolved when, the day before he’s about to be hanged, his sentence is commuted. He’ll be many years in prison, but he’s young yet and will get out. Taffendale knows that all is lost for him and that Rhoda will wait for Perris.

No inscriptions.

The Talleyrand Maxim (J.S. Fletcher, 1920)

A wealthy mill owner dies apparently interstate and some distant and rather poorer relations inherit. A clerk at the law office discovers that there was a will that would leave the benefactors comparatively nothing and he attempts to use it as blackmail.

I’ve said before about Fletcher that’s he’s a decent enough author, he simply had no talent at all for detective stories. It’s unfortunate for him that he wrote during the golden age of detective stories and that’s where the money was. I am 100% convinced that the first draft of this book was a mystery with Collingwood’s serving as the detective. There is no doubt in my mind. Whether it was Fletcher’s own choice or his editor’s to reveal the secret at the start of the book and turn the story into a straight crime thriller, I don’t know, but I am certainly thankful.

Inscription: on the inside front cover is carefully penciled “Belongs to” and nothing else.

The Murder in the Pallant (J.S. Fletcher, 1928)

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.

Behind the Monocle (J.S. Fletcher, 1930)

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.

False Scent (J.S. Fletcher, 1925)

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 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.