Wed 22 Sep 2010
ANTHONY WYNNE – Murder of a Lady. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1931; Crime-Book Society #44, paperback, 1930s. US title: The Silver Scale Mystery, J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1931.
Scottish-born physician Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963) was a man of many interests. Besides practicing medicine, he wrote about numerous subjects, including European history, economics (his economic thought influenced the famous poet and fascist Ezra Pound and continues to attract interest at certain quarters of the internet).
More importantly, under the pseudonym Anthony Wynne, he wrote a series of twenty-seven detective novels between the years 1925 and 1950. This is the work, of course, that interests us most here at the Mystery*File blog.
Anthony Wynne’s detective novels have been out of print for sixty years, but some retain interest today. Along with John Dickson Carr, Wynne was one of the most prominent Golden Age practitioners of the locked room mystery. Unfortunately, his novels often tend to be overly melodramatic, thinly characterized and humorless, no doubt in part explaining their obscurity today.
One of the best Anthony Wynne detective novels, Murder of a Lady (The Silver Scale Mystery in the United States), deserves reprinting, however. Set in Scotland, where Wynne himself grew into adulthood, Murder of a Lady benefits from strong atmosphere (with supernatural overtones), some compelling characters and emotional entanglements, a baffling and suspenseful problem and a plausible enough solution.
The “Lady” in question, Mary Gregor, sister of a laird, is found dead by violence in her bedroom in her brother’s Highland Scottish castle. The author offers a classic sealed room situation, with locked doors and windows. More deaths occur, all seemingly impossible.
“The assassin kills but remains invisible,” announces nerve specialist Dr. Eustace Hailey, Wynne’s snuff-taking but not especially interesting series detective. In each case a herring scale is found on the victims body, a detail leading to suspicions among the superstitious locals (which includes gentry as well as plain folk) that legendary fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible the mayhem, taking vengeance for past family misdeeds.
The crimes are truly baffling, and suspense during the investigations of both Dr. Hailey and the professionals is well maintained. The Scottish Highland atmosphere, with its supernatural elements, is very well done. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of John Dickson Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides, thought the humor in that book is utterly absent from Wynne’s.)
The household of the laird and his sister — which includes a son and daughter-in-law and several servants — is strongly drawn as well. Particularly admirable is the author’s delineation of the character of the first murder victim (the lady), who dominates the household even in death, a defunct spider whose victims still struggle in the remains of her web.
I was kept in suspense until the author sprang his solution, and Dr. Hailey’s explanation maintains interest until the very last paragraph of the novel, when we learn the true meaning of one element of the mystery.
Murder of a Lady is Golden Age detective fiction at its considerable best. I’m going to talk to Ramble House about getting this one reprinted.