A review of Five to Five by Dorothy Erskine Muir
I am going through a phase of sampling authors from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction who are new to me. Dorothy Erskine Muir is the latest to fall into this category. Astonishingly, she was one of seventeen children sired by John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich. She worked as an academic tutor but started writing professionally, mainly historical non-fiction, to supplement her income following the unexpected death of her husband. Among her published works, though, were three murder mysteries, of which this is the second, originally issued in 1934, and now plucked out of undeserved obscurity by the enterprising Moonstone Press.
Perhaps because of her interest in history, Erskine Muir chose to base her murder mysteries around examples of true crimes. Five to Five takes as its premise the notorious murder of a wealthy 82-year-old woman, Marion Gilchrist, who was murdered on December 21, 1908, bludgeoned to death, after her maidservant had left the flat in Glasgow to do some errands. Miss Gilchrist obviously knew her attacker as there was no evidence of forced entry. From her extensive jewellery collection, only one large diamond brooch was found to be missing.
The police arrested Oscar Slater and on rather flimsy evidence was found guilty in 1909 of Gilchrist’s murder and sentenced to hang, although it was later commuted to imprisonment. He was eventually released after several enquiries and much campaigning on his behalf by, amongst others, Conan Doyle, after serving nineteen years of hard labour. It was one of Scotland’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.
Erskine Muir chose to revisit the case, with different characters and essay a cogent and plausible solution to the case. Her Miss Gilchrist is a rather unpleasant, miserly old man, Simon Ewing, who has an extensive collection of jade and jewellery. As is the wont of these characters, he is unwilling to help his impecunious relatives. When he is left in his flat unattended, he is bludgeoned to death.
In the flat below, there is a family gathering and when they hear the crash, a couple go upstairs to investigate and a stranger passes them on the stairs making their way to the exit. Was this the murderer? Did they really not recognise him? All that was missing were two rings from Ewing’s fingers and one piece of diamond jewellery.
The task of discovering what had happened to Ewing and why falls to Detective Inspector Woods, who performs his duties diligently and with some compassion. As the title suggests, much of the investigation focuses on who was where and at what time and the accuracy or otherwise of various timepieces which the suspects used to vouch for their alibis. Inevitably, once Woods realises that they are not all telling the same time he begins to make some progress, but it takes a second murder for the pieces to fall into place.
Erskine Muir writes with verve, varies the focal point of the narrative with some aplomb, develops her characters so that they are more than ciphers, and does a fine job of keeping the momentum going, when in less skilled hands the establishing and dismantling of alibis can become a tad wearisome. Her solution is elegant with a twist that many readers, this one included, might not have seen coming and, unlike in the Slater case, justice is seen to be done.
Although the book will not be up there amongst the genre’s true classics, I enjoyed it and will read her other two novels.