The Babes in the … Loch?
Well, this was a fun read.
Anthony Wynne (real name: Robert McNair Wilson), Martin Edwards informs us in this book’s preface and in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, was the long-standing medical correspondent of The Times; a man with many and varied interests which, in addition to his medical profession and publications in subjects ranging from science to history and, well, detective fiction — also included politics and national economics.
His abiding interest in psychology (by training, he was a cardiologist and a nerve specialist) is certainly at play in this novel as well, in which the spinster sister of an impoverished Scottish laird is found dead in her bedroom, after its locked doors have been forced open. The room’s windows are likewise locked, and though she has suffered a brutally-administered (and obviously fatal) wound, no murder weapon is found, and she has lost surprisingly little blood given the nature of her wound.
Dr. Eustace Hailey — Wynne’s “great detective” and almost certainly at least in part a stand-in for the author, whose opinions and outlook on life he seems to share in quite a number of respects — is called in to the investigation by the regional Procurator Fiscal, but shooed away again with comparatively little grace by the inspector sent by Police Headquarters in Glasgow to investigate the murder … only to be resorted to once more (with equally little grace) in a matter of days, when the inspector’s investigative trails have summarily run cold.
The murdered woman locally had a reputation touching on saintlihood, but was in fact a manipulative witch of the worst order who held her entire household in an oppressive stranglehold — she was, in other words, a textbook Golden Age mystery victim. Motives for her murder abound, but neither they nor the apparent opportunities to commit the crime are consistent with the psychology of the potential suspects, and just like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dr. Hailey refuses to attach guilt to a would-be suspect as long as motive, means, evidence and psychology are not aligned. It also doesn’t seem to help that local rumour soon ascribes the lady’s death to a selkie believed to be living in Loch Fyne, where the events are taking place (I’d initially thought the book was set on Loch Lomond: turns out I was in error by two Trossach mountain ranges; still, the scenery is similar), on the strength of a fish scale found near the dead woman’s body.
The novel is tightly-plotted, and I tremendously enjoyed both its psychological aspects and Wynne’s way with words — and unlike Tigus and Moonlight Reader I also didn’t mind the amount of dialogue. There were some things that didn’t make sense to me, which I’m going to address in the spoiler below, but they didn’t impinge on my enjoyment half as much as they might have in a weaker book. By and large the story hangs together very well, and though the calamities certainly pile up towards the end, Wynne also manages to tie it up neatly and without any obvious rush.
As a coincidental side note, several elements of this book also tied in with my recent Halloween Bingo reads … one of them being a reference to “the babes in the wood,” a proverb based on a traditional children’s tale dealing with — you guessed it — two kids all alone in the woods, after their parents have unwittingly left them to the care of their evil uncle, who in short order proceeds to deliver them into the hands of murderers. The tale was first published as a ballad by Thomas Millington in Norwich in 1595 — the late 19th century Caldecott version is available for free on the Project Gutenberg site — and has given rise to a proverb indicating essentially the same as someone being “in over their head”; i.e., being overwhelmed by situation requiring decidedly more experience than one really possesses. That would certainly be an apt description for many a member of the dead woman’s household in this novel — at least as much, if not more so than in Ruth Rendell’s novel of the same name, which I read for (obviously) the “In the Dark, Dark Woods” square of the Halloween Bingo.
All in all, I am very grateful to Martin Edwards and the British Library for having unearthed this little gem after almost a century’s worth of neglect, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more books by Anthony Wynne … hoping I can find them, that is.
NOTE: Don’t read the below paragraphs if you haven’t read / finished this book yet; I’m going to address, inter alia, the novel’s conclusion there.
The things that had me scratching my head, and which prevented this from getting an even higher star rating were principally the following:
1.) The “concealed” footsteps outside the writing room window below Mary Gregor’s bedroom. “Covering up” footsteps with dirt (from the same ground they’re in, in the first place) and they’re supposed to still remain pristine underneath the “covering” dirt just waiting to be, ahem, unearthed by a detective unsatisfied with the apparently untouched appearance of that particular piece of ground? Balderdash.
2.) Eoghan’s and Dr. McDonald’s response to Dr. Hailey’s arguments on the boat. We’re talking about an era when, and a social class where, people (well, men, anyway) who had terminally failed — either in business, i.e., who had gone bankrupt, or personally, including having committed a crime or caused any other situation that would bring their family and loved ones into abject disrepute (like a murder trial certainly would, even if they were innocent; and both Eoghan and Dr. McDonald explicitly make reference to this) — were quite literally socially expected to execute justice on themselves by committing suicide. (Thomas Mann, for one, derived considerable mileage out of this circumstance alone in his writings.) In fact, we’re explicitly told repeatedly that the Duchlan family code, too, firmly embodied this line of thought. Similarly — as the odious Inspector Barley observes in one of his astuter moments — husbands were expected to throw themselves on the sword in order to safeguard the honour of their wives, innocent or not; and Eoghan has demonstrated his willingness to do precisely that once already (and I couldn’t help but root for him then, if only because it managed to shut Barley up good and proper for once at least). And I know enough about people facing up to a terminal crisis that — unlike people running away from it — the only arguments these people will listen to are arguments conclusively addressing the worst case they see before themselves. Unless you can show them a convincing way to deal with that worst case, they won’t care a jot about any spurious hope that it just might not come to that — they are leagues past that sort of hope.
Now, when Eoghan and Dr. McDonald take Eoghan’s boat out on the loch, they have both been both facing up to the consequences of a murder trial involving Oonagh and Dr. McDonald — they aren’t running away (without Oonagh, at that) but planning to commit suicide in order to spare her the trial and safeguard the Duchlan family name. Yet, Dr. Hailey’s arguments when persuading them to desist do not actually address the eventuality of a guilty verdict; nor the risk that nothing would actually be gained in Oonagh’s favour by their proposed suicide. His arguments are, essentially, of the “well, it might not come to that” and “surely, the jury would be more reasonable than you in your muddled-brain and worried current state expect them to be” brand that would easily convince only someone running away from a problem and willing to cling to every bit of spurious hope. But both Eoghan and Dr. McDonald are past that point; in addition to which, as Dr. McDonald points out, between drowning and the rope, drowning would conceivably have been the easier death. — So I was very surprised at the ease with which Dr. Hailey manages to get them to, literally, turn around; this didn’t strike me as in keeping with the psychological insight at play in the rest of the novel at all.
3.) The murder method. By which I don’t mean the use of ice as such — that’s a time-honoured “impossible crime” trope that has been used by everybody from John Dickson Carr (who even included it expressly as an example in his lecture on the seven types of locked room mysteries) and Roald Dahl to … the author of another Halloween Bingo read of mine, James D. Doss. Yet, leaving aside that killing someone by hitting them with a huge block of ice from a considerable height requires both a great deal of precision and for the victim to stand still long enough for that block of ice to hit its target (i.e., a hell of a lot of coincidence at play), only in the two last murders do I even buy into the reason why the victim ended up standing where they could be killed that way in the first place: Barley was enticed to move that way, and Duchlan had the misfortune to move where Dr. Hailey had set his trap; i.e., in his case, coincidence actually was at play in the worst of all possible ways.
However, most buildings from before WWI — even “ordinary” city dwellings; even more so, centuries-old castles like Duchlan in this novel — have outer walls that are easily several feet worth of massive stone in width. And I know from personal experience (having lived in turn-of-the[19th-to-20th]-century buildings both as a kid and for several years while I was living in Berlin) that nothing works as a more efficient bar shielding the interior of such a building from outside weather conditions than these walls — no air conditioning required whatsoever. Thus, even if it is (as we are told) swelteringly hot outside, you won’t feel the heat indoors; in fact, it may even be so cool indoors that you find yourself resorting to a sweater, only to wish you could dispense with any and all clothing the second you step outside. And yet, in precisely such a building, we’re to believe that people move to the window for purposes of cooling down … at a time when the air outside is (even though it’s evening) quite likely still warmer than the air indoors? Not on your life. — (Added to which, again there is some mighty coincidence at play in the first murder, as there was no reason to expect Mary Gregor to even step to the window in the first place, as only the sudden shock she had received minutes earlier made her decide to close it at all, whereas usually it was her habit to sleep with her windows wide open.)
This novel fulfills the chapter 5 square on the Detection Club bingo card, “Miraculous Murders” (locked room mysteries and impossible crimes).
In the context of the Halloween Bingo, it would fit “Amateur Sleuth”, “Country House Murders”, “Murder Most Foul” and, of course, also “Locked Room Mystery.”
The Detection Club bingo card: