Book Corner – December 2020 (3)

Murder of a Lady – Anthony Wynne

Anthony Wynne was the nom de plume of surgeon, historian, and writer, Robert McNair Wilson. Death of a Lady was published in 1931 and also went under an alternative title of The Silver Scale Mystery. It is Wynne’s twelfth book to feature his amateur detective, Dr Eustace Hailey. Unlike many series of stories featuring a single detective creation, this book stood on its own merits and required little or no knowledge of the detective to enjoy and appreciate it. The book was much more about the plot and a clever story it is too, with an ingenious twist on how to commit a murder or three.

Set in the Highlands of Scotland, Dr Hailey is staying with a friend, Colonel John MacCallien, when they are told that the sister of the local laird, Mary Gregor, has been murdered at nearby Duchlan Castle. It is a classic locked room story, doors and windows locked and a sheer drop from the window. A scale of a herring is found by the fatal wound, prompting the locals to talk of things that swim in the loch and terrorise the neighbourhood. Hailey is made of sterner stuff and is determined to unravel the mystery of how could have committed the murder and how.

Hailey aids and abets the police, but as both of the inspectors seeming to be closing on identifying who the killer might be, or so they think, they are both murdered in circumstances where it would have been thought impossible for a crime to be pulled off. Each has a herring scale by their fatal wound. So, as well as a locked room mystery, you get two impossible crimes for your money.

As investigations get underway the dark secrets of Duchlan Castle begin to be unravelled. As Wynne notes as the story gets underway, “there’s something wrong with this house”. Mary Gregor wasn’t the paragon of virtue that the laird paints her to be but ruled the household with a rod of iron and suppressed anyone who ties to usurp her position. It transpires that the laird’s wife drowned herself and shortly after Mary’s murder, the daughter-in-law, Oonagh, tries to drown herself.

The finger of suspicion falls on the laird’s son, inevitably he is in debt and would benefit financially from his aunt’s death, and his wife, who had a furious row just with the victim just before her death. Hailey, though, is convinced of their innocence and believes that one of the clues to unlocking the mystery(ies) lies in the old scar found on Mary’s body which she had been keen to hide. Of course, it is and does, although I will not spoil your enjoyment by giving anymore away.

Wynne conveys the gloomy, almost Gothic, atmosphere of the castle well and there are not too many red herrings, only their scales, or coincidences to give the story an air of implausibility. It is a well-crafted tale, enjoyable and clever. Wynne takes time to explore the dynamics of the household and get into the mentalities and motives of the various suspects and it pays off. There are some quirky features about the book, not least the suspicions of lowland folk about highlanders and vice versa.         

An enjoyable read and a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

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