Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick or Treat! A HalloWells Celebration (The Clue, 1909; The Curved Blades, 1916)

It's a dark and stormy Halloween night, and while neither of these Carolyn Wells mysteries is particularly scary, they offer a mixed bag: one trick and one treat.

First up: Wells' debut detective novel, The Clue (1909)

This novel set the mold for Carolyn Wells' numerous (over three score) Fleming Stone mysteries.  It takes place in the palatial New Jersey country mansion (yes, New Jersey has palatial country mansions) owned by haughty heiress Madeleine Van Norman, nicknamed "Magnificent Madeleine" on account of her haughty ways.  

On the night before her wedding, "Magnificent Madeleine" is found dead in a chair in her library, killed by a single thrust from her Venetian letter opener (it's always asking for trouble when you keep one of those things in the library of your palatial country mansion).  

The police, of course, don't have a clue (despite the title), and for most of the novel readers follow the actions of an appealing pair of amateur sleuths, a young man and woman who were members of the wedding party (these two anticipated Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence by a dozen years). They find a clue--a cachou, or lozenge, dropped on the floor--but they aren't able to make anything of it.

Finally (and I mean finally--it's like the last ten percent of the novel), Great Detective Fleming Stone shows up and solves the case with absurd ease, using information to which readers are not made privy. Did I mention the butler testified at the inquest that the whole house was securely locked and that no one--absolutely no one, I tell you--could have gotten in without its being known?  Hmmm.......

I liked the amateur sleuths, but Fleming Stone's solution is a cheat.  Verdict: Trick!

Next up: The love song of Fleming Stone, The Curved Blades (1916).

Here we have another country mansion murder.  This time the victim is imperious Lucy Carrington, who is found dead in a chair by her dressing table, decked out in $200,000 worth of jewelery, a smile on her face and a Japanese paper snake wrapped around her neck. Now that is a bizarre tableau worthy of P. D. James!

In some ways The Curved Blades reads like a reboot of The Clue, but it is a big improvement on the earlier mystery, in my view.  

Fleming Stone shows up in the middle of the novel, so we get more genuine investigation; and the problem, which does NOT involve a sealed room situation, is really an interesting one, being rather a matter of psychology.

Fleming Stone falls in love with a suspect, a la Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, but I can stand this for the sake of a good problem.  Verdict: Treat!

Fortunately both these novels are available in nice editions in paper and electronic editions from Resurrected Pres--and you can always get an older hardcover edition, back from the era when book making was a real craft.  I'm now going to watch an old mystery thriller, which you'll be reading more about this weekend!


  1. I really don't like it when the author lets the detective solve the crime with information to which the reader has not been privy. I insist on fair play, whenever I can get it.

    1. Yeah, Wells definitely could slip up when it came to fair play, which is odd, considering how her book The Technique of the Mystery Story emphasizes it!

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, it's a strong part of the appeal for me, I admit.

  3. I love the way you structured this post for the season. Very clever.

  4. Kelly, thanks! It's always fun to try something different.