Sat 14 Mar 2009
LOUIS TRACY – The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley. Edward J. Clode, US, hardcover, 1919. Serialized in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, May 30 to July 25, 1920. Previously published in the UK as The Case of Mortimer Fenley: Cassell & Co., hardcover, 1915.
Artist John Trenholme is staying in the Hertfordshire village of Roxton, having gone there at the request of a magazine to do paintings of the local area before the railway arrives and ruins everything.
His request to thus immortalise a nearby Elizabethan mansion is rebuffed by its owner, Mortimer Fenley, private banker and father of two half-brothers.
Trenholme finds out there’s a public right of way across Fenley’s parkland and on a lovely June morning he avails himself of it to paint the view — which includes a young woman in a bathing suit taking a morning dip in the lake. He is thus on the spot to hear the shot that kills Fenley on his own doorstep.
At this point one of my favourite sleuthing teams, Superintendent James Leander Winter and Detective Inspector Charles Francois Furneaux, arrive on stage when Scotland Yard is called in by oldest son Hilton Fenley. To add to the family’s troubles, both siblings wish to marry their father’s beautiful ward Sylvia Manning — she of the bathing suit — which worsens the already bad blood between them.
The younger son Robert is a ne’er-do-well who was in London when his father died, or was he? Could the murder be connected to a bond robbery at the Fenley Bank? How was the seemingly impossible crime committed when a prime suspect was known to be in the house when the murderous shot was fired from a wood some 400 yards away?
My verdict: Much as I have enjoyed the Winter & Furneaux stories, I must mark this one as a B. The Fenleys are curiously thin as characters, and I felt the lesser players in the drama were more rounded out, probably because Tracy provides a different angle for the traditional supporting cast.
Thus for example we have the oft bibulous butler depicted instead as a wine connoisseur and the village bobby as intelligent and quick thinking. On the other hand, the touch of melodrama towards the end of the novel seems somewhat out of place, and prospective readers should be aware there are a few comments of an un-PC nature.
Bibliographic data: John D. Squires’ long chronological checklist for Louis Tracy (1863-1928), aka Gordon Holmes and Robert Fraser, is online here here.