Originally published in 1940 this is the second of Patricia Wentworth’s three book Inspector Lamb series, now reissued for a modern audience by the enterprising Dean Street Press. Fans of Wentworth are more accustomed to encountering Inspector Ernest Lamb and his sidekick, Frank Abbott, in the company of the knitting fanatic Miss Silver but in this series, they operate without her. I am still undecided about Wentworth and this book, entertaining enough in parts as it is, has done nothing to convert me to become one of her adherents.
The piper in the title, the person who calls the shots and whose actions impacts those of others, is a self-made businessman, Lucas Dale, who opens the book by declaring that he always gets what he wants. What he wants is the hand of Susan Lennox, the niece of Mrs O’Hara, whose house, Bourne House, Dale bought from her when her brother died and left them penniless. Susan, though, is engaged to a young architect who is trying to make his way in the world, Bill Carrick. Dale has a collection of impressive jewels and in the opening chapter he hosts a party in which they are displayed and tries to get Lennox to wear them.
Inevitably, some of the jewels go missing and are found in the lining of Cathleen O’Hara’s handbag. She is Dale’s social secretary and Susan’s cousin. Dale uses the discovery of the gems as a means of blackmailing Susan into agreeing to marry him, otherwise he would involve the police and further besmirch the family’s name. Perhaps unbelievably, Susan is weak enough to agree and tells Carrick that their match is off. Understandably furious, Carrick marches off to confront Dale, a shot is heard and Dale is found dead. Did Carrick kill him?
Although it looks bad for him, and indeed Susan who arrived at the scene of the crime shortly afterwards, the ponderous investigations of Lamb and Abbott reveal that there are other inhabitants in Dale’s house, not least a former American business partner who turns up unexpectedly and seems to have a hold over him, and his former wife who also turns up unexpectedly and just happens to have been a sharpshooter in a travelling show, who have a grudge against the victim. In what seems to be a them in crime novels of this era, the residents of Dale’s house did not hear the shot because they were either listening to the radio – there mustn’t be a very workable volume control as they always seem to blare out loud – or running a bath with the water clanking through the pipes.
Lane accuses Abbott of disbelieving that Carrick or Lennox could have perpetrated the crime because of their class and because he likes them. Once the murder has been committed, the pace of the book takes a distinct dive and in parts can be quite hard going, but it is saved by the denouement which has quite a twist. As they say, the likeliest suspect is always the unlikeliest.
Wentworth can tell a story and draws her characters well. The vicar’s wife is described as having “the air of a hen confronted by a worm of some unknown species” and the bedridden aunt, Mrs O’Hara, enjoys her invalidity.
My frustrations with the book are with the basic premise – would anyone be so stupid as to agree to Dale’s rather crude blackmail attempt, especially as her cousin seems ready to face the music if she really had stolen the jewels? Often with books of this type you have to roll with it and see where the plot takes you. In this case, it delivers an acceptable few hours of entertainment, but there are far better examples of the genre out there. That said, I will probably complete the series.