Thu 29 Apr 2010
J. S. FLETCHER – The Safety Pin. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1924. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, US, hc, 1924.
Solicitor Francis Shelmore deals only in conveyancing and lives a calm and ordered life in Southernstowe, “within sixty miles” of London.
One afternoon Miss Cynthia Pretty, youthful half-owner of a Cornish tin mine, appears in his office to ask for help in locating the mine’s co-owner James Deane, her guardian and trustee, who has disappeared from the hotel where they had arranged to meet before leaving for a trip to the continent.
Mr Deane is found murdered not far from a mansion occupied by Mrs Sophia Champernowne and her shiftless brother Alfred. She is a rich woman, mayoress of Southernstowe and owner of its biggest drapery store. Deane’s body is discovered by special constable John Hackdale, under-manager of Mrs Champernowne’s emporium and older brother of Shelmore’s shifty clerk Simmons Hackdale.
John removes The Safety Pin from Deane’s jacket and conceals its existence from those investigating the crime, not exactly the sort of behaviour most readers would expect from a special constable.
What significance can be attached to the fact that of 400 scenic postcards found in Deane’s hotel room only one has a particular house marked? Did his murderer act alone or with accomplices? Was it a random crime for profit, planned for a particular motive, or one that became inevitable when old secrets began rising from the dark waters of the past to gibber hideously on its slimy surface?
My verdict: The Safety Pin features a convoluted plot featuring blackmail, another disappearance, bribery, and sibling rivalry gone bonkers for a start, as well as more than one shady character with good motives for their behaviour — from their points of view at least.
Miss Pretty gains sympathy at the beginning but ultimately, as my mother would say, lets herself down. Fletcher plays very cleverly on readers’ assumptions about characters’ motives and then briskly turns them on their heads towards the end of the novel. The denouement will annoy some readers and yet even they will have to admit it’s just the sort of thing that *would* happen in real life.
My only quibble: I’d like to know what finally happened to that safety pin…