Death In The Dentist’s Chair

Death In The Dentist’s Chair – Molly Thynne

I hate going to the dentist and this book did nothing to assuage my dread of the experience. As well as the heightened anticipation of what is to befall me as I sit open-mouthed in the chair, I am hit with the realisation that I am at the mercy of the dentist. I have placed my faith implicitly in them. Published in 1932 Thynne’s murder takes place in a dentist’s chair, as the title suggests, and replicated the locus and method used by Brian Flynn in his The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye four years earlier, and, of course, the better-known dentist murder mystery is Agatha Christie’s much later, One Two, Buckle My Shoe from 1940.

The book’s opening tells the story through the eyes of Mr Cattistock who leaves the surgery of society dentist, Humphrey Davenport, having had several of his teeth removed. He is rather groggy, as well he might be. In the waiting room are the wife of a Hatton Garden jeweller, Lottie Miller, Sir Richard Pomfroy and the widow of a theatre owner, Mrs Vallon. Cattistock takes an instant dislike to Mrs Miller who is next to go into the consulting room. Davenport leaves her there to go to his workshop to adjust her dentures, gets locked in there and by the time he is released and returns to the room, Mrs Miller has had her throat slashed with a Chinese dagger.

As Cattistock leaves the premises, Thynne’s amateur sleuth, Dr Constantine, arrives for his own check-up. Naturally, he is a friend of the Scotland Yard officer in charge of investigations, D I Arkwright, and lends a hand. Just to add some further complexity into the case, one of the jewels Mrs Miller was wearing has gone missing and later in the book there is a further murder, again bearing all the hallmarks of being committed with a Chinese dagger. Whodunit and why?

All those on the premises at the time of the murder fall under suspicion either because they have some conceivable motive or their behaviour around the time of the murder seem suspicious. Despite plausibly being a suspect himself as he was on the premises, Constantine is not considered as the likely murderer. What it is to have friends in high places.

In some ways it is tempting to see Constantine, an elderly chess playing sleuth, as a Holmes manque and he does seem to treat the case as an intellectual puzzle. I was concerned as the book seemed to descend into a literary version of a game of Cluedo as each suspect has their alibis challenged, dissected, and accepted. Perhaps Thynne was conscious that the momentum of the book was waning, running the risk of losing the reader’s interest because the book suddenly lurches into action beyond the midway point.

The solution is ingenious and complex as Thynne drip feeds more and more of backstory into the narrative, requiring the reader to re-examine their preconceptions of each of the characters. There are no loose ends, as far as I could tell, and the reader could tell how Constantine reached his conclusions, which is all we can ask for.

What might otherwise would have been a tedious closed room murder mystery was ingeniously rescued and transformed into a riveting read.

Police At The At Funeral

Police at the Funeral – Margery Allingham

This is the fourth book in Allingham’s Albert Campion series, published in 1931, and the usual entertaining read. Here, Campion is not battling international gangs but rather battling to understand an eccentrically dysfunctional extended Cambridge family, the Faradays, and the murder of one of their members, Andrew Seeley.  

The book starts miles away from the dreaming spires of academe in a deserted passage in central London where Inspector Stanislaus Oates of the Yard, one of the Met’s so-called big five, seeks refuge from a man who appears to be stalking him. Coincidence of coincidences, the very place he seeks refuge is the spot where Campion, his old mucker, is meeting a woman who wants his help in solving a mysterious disappearance. To compound the coincidences, the man Oates is seeking to shake off is a Faraday who turns tale when he sees Joyce Blount, another member, the lady who has the assignation with Campion.

Campion accepts the brief but Seeleys’ disappearance takes a sinister turn when his body is fished out of the water, arms and legs bound, and with a gun shot wound administered at close quarters. He stays at the Faraday’s home in the wonderfully named Socrates Close, a name not without a hint of irony as we discover later in the book, which is run with a rod of iron by the formidable grande dame, Caroline Faraday. Also living there are her three grown up children, all in their way weak and content to spend their time quarrelling and bickering, together with Joyce, the niece of her late son-in-law, and Andrew.

The police investigation is headed by Oates and while he and Campion co-operate in the main, Campion is not averse to withholding a vital piece of evidence to give him the edge. As the investigation proceeds, there are two more deaths, Julia and George, both poisoned, and a near miss, bluff William, as there seems to be a concerted plan to eradicate the Faradays. The world would probably not be too bad a place afterwards if that were to happen, but murder is murder.

There are a number of suspects, each with motive aplenty to do away with members of the family, and all with seemingly cast-iron alibis, even the drunken George and his tramp-like companion, Beveridge. The bluff but engaging William was with Andrew at the time of his disappearance, but Campion seems convinced that he did not do it, even though he suffers from blackouts and cannot control his behaviour or remember what he has done.

As you would come to expect and hope, Campion arrives at the solution ahead of Oates, but as far as the reader is concerned, it requires a considerable leap of imagination to arrive at the right conclusion. Some of the clues you need to identify what happened to Seeley and who conducted a rampageous vendetta against the Faradays are there, but not all. Allingham does not play particularly fair with her readership.

I also thought that her characterisations were fairly weak, the Faradays, with the possible exception of the old lady and the entertaining William, are provided with just enough colour to make them interesting but not to invest any emotion in. Also, reflecting the attitudes that prevailed at the time, Allingham is not averse to making remarks that would make the politically correct blanche. On the plus side, though, Campion really comes to the fore in ways that he doesn’t in other books that I have read. He is a charming, suave, debonair, witty individual who can charm and tame old dragons like Caroline and earn their undying gratitude as well as solving the odd murder.

The book was entertaining enough and enjoyable, if you did not want to play sleuth. The title, though, is a mystery. Plenty of deaths and police, but no funerals!

Catt Out Of The Bag

Catt Out Of The Bag – Clifford Witting

If you like your detective novels laced with humour and a smidgeon of social satire, then this 1939 book, the fourth in the Inspector Harry Charlton series and the first of Witting’s I have read, will be right up your alley. It is set in the Yuletide season and so if you are planning what to read in the festive season, then make a note. If like me, you don’t mind reading a good book out of the season, then grab a copy now. There is a cheap, very cheap, edition in Kindle format.

There are some unusual elements to the book. Initially, it sets out as a disappearance, with a presumption that the missing Mr Vavasour has been killed, and then only later on does it become clear that he has been done away with. The focus of the book switches from where is Mr Vavasour to a whodunit.

The second oddity is that there is no central sleuth charged with unravelling the mystery. An engaging but ultimately superfluous character, Raymond Cloud-Glevill, does the initial sleuthing in an enthusiastic and rather amateur way, although he does cover some of the initial groundwork of the case, albeit in a less efficient manner than the constabulary would have done. He is aided and abetted by the narrator, John Rutherford, who then takes over when Raymond exits stage left to only to reappear, unnecessarily, at the end.

Rutherford happens to be the nephew of Inspector Charlton who assumes control of the case when Vavasour’s wife reluctantly reports that her hubby is missing and Charlton and other members of the constabulary who flit in and out, with Rutherford in tow, see the case out to its bitter end. The story is narrated by Rutherford who is allowed to use his imagination to fill in the precise details of events that Charlton and others tell him or which he observed. This is a neat device that does not spoil the flow of the narrative.      

The Rutherfords are guests for the festive period of Sybil and Charles de Frayne in the fictional town of Paulsfield . Sybil de Frayne is a social climber, a busy-body, an organiser and a snob, reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket, while Charles appears to be a long-suffering husband who has learnt enough ruses to keep his wife at bay. The group, minus Charles, are roped into walking around the town singing carols to raise monies for one of Sybil’s good causes. During the course of the evening one of the party, Mr Vavasour, disappears and two sets of footsteps are heard. It is only the following day that it is realised that Mr Vavasour has disappeared and that his wife is reluctant to involve the police. What has happened to him?

During the course of the investigations, it emerges that Mr Vavasour, whose real name is Thomas Catt, is a polygamist and has used his cod profession as a travelling salesman to visit his paramours. His disappearance and murder have a devastating effect on some of his female victims, leading one to commit suicide.

Sybil’s military planning of the itinerant carol service allows the authorities to be specific as to the time of Vavasour’s disappearance and murder and it narrows the field of suspects considerably. My sense is that Witting was anticipating that the eventual unmasking of the culprit would take the reader by surprise but having read many books of this type I had my suspicions early on as to the murderer’s identity.

Nonetheless, that did not spoil my enjoyment of the book. Witting has clearly enjoyed himself painting a picture of the awful Sybil and pokes fun at her pretensions. She is not a bad person, though, with a heart of gold but would have been a nightmare to know and live with. The Christmas celebrations, including John having to dress up as Father Christmas for a nightmare of a Christmas party for the local children also provides much humour.

I enjoyed the book, a perfect light, undemanding read.

Cherry Of The Week

A Sweet Stephany cherry, grown in an experimental cherry garden in Runco di Portomaggiore, a collaboration between the University of Bologna and Salvi Vivai, has just been crowned the world’s heaviest cherry. Part of their June 2020 it stood out from its peers. When put on the scales, Stefano Tartarini found that it weighed a whopping 0.93 ounces.

Rather like British exporters to the EU, the team had a mountain of paperwork to complete quickly to register it with Guinness World Record as the cherry was not expected to have a long shelf-life. It was the culmination of 10 years of work and, according to Tartarini, showed the relevance of their work.

I suppose it does if you like your cherries big.

Song Of The Week

Pity the Australian Regent Honeyeater, a distinctive black and yellow bird, of which only a few hundred now remain.

According to Dr Ross Crates from the Australian National University the key to their decline is that there are so few males around from whom the chicks can learn their mating songs. Increasingly, they have been reduced to mimicking the songs of friar birds and cuckoo shrikes and, understandably, the females are unimpressed.

Is it, though, a case of the chicken and the egg? Is it the case that there are just too few males anyway or is it there are few role models for the impressionable youngsters to imitate?

One of life’s mysteries, for sure.