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.