CAROLYN WELLS – Feathers Left Around. J. B. Lippincott, US/UK, hardcover, 1923.

   Perhaps the most perfect example of the stereotypically bad English country house mystery that I have read was published in 1923 by an American, Carolyn Wells. Sure, Feathers Left Around takes place in America, but it might as well be in the England of the classic Golden Age country house fantasy land of stereotype.

CAROLYN WELLS Feathers Left Around

   The best thing about the tale is the whimsical title, the meaning of which we learn from this racially insensitive anecdote from one of the characters, the soon-to-be-murdered detective novelist, Mr. Curran:

    “An old darky was arrested for stealing chickens, and he was convicted on circumstantial evidence. ‘What’s circumstantial evidence?’ a neighbor asked him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘ez near as I can splain f’um de way it’s been splained to me, circumstantial evidence is de feathers dat you leaves lyin’ roun’ after you has done wid de chicken.'”

   So the “Feathers” in the tale are the clues left around after Mr. Curran is found dead in a locked room, presumably murdered. About 80% of the novel is devoted to the bumbling efforts of a lone police detective and a surfeit of amateurs (five or more!) to solve the case, until Fleming Stone and his “saucy” boy assistant Fibsy show up to solve the case in short order.

   If this suggests that the mystery is a pretty simple one, you’re right. I penciled the solution in the margin on page 102, but had to wait about 240 pages for confirmation (I was right).

   No secret passages this time, but another trick that was used, with far more elaboration, by later authors John Dickson Carr and Nicholas Blake. This is the most interesting part of the book as far as plot is concerned, and might have made a mildly interesting short story. The murder method is fairly clued too, though the motive is deduced by Fleming Stone based on information not provided to the reader.

   Unfortunately, the novel is padded with ceaseless dialogue among a group of completely uninteresting ciphers, which soon becomes tedious. None of the men, with the exception of the imperious host of the house party, are really distinguishable, while one wishes that the women were extinguishable.

   There’s the pouty flirt who wraps all men around her finger (even the police detective, who, enchanted by the little lady’s pouts and simpers, agrees to lie about her having enjoyed a tete-a-tete out on the balcony with the deceased shortly before he died); the obvious heroine with a not-so-dark and easily-guessed secret; and the girl who likes to talk about her dreams and the utterly unconvincing Russian Countess. ( “Fiddle-dee-dee!” the Countess exclaims exotically at one point.)

   It becomes clear that there’s not a chance the author will allow one of these darling women to be the killer, their obviously being intended merely to provide “character interest” window dressing (variously humor and anxiety, as the case calls for).

   The author’s frivolous treatment of her female characters is further indicated when the men of the party inform the women that they are not allowed to investigate the murder scene for clues, this being man’s work, and the women submissively assent. Agatha Christie, where are you!

   Most fascinating about Feathers Left Around are the author’s attitudes about gender and especially class. It seems clear Wells has no clue what an actual police investigation is like, or, if she does, she determinedly keeps that knowledge to herself.

   When the five or so men of the party inform the detective that they want to accompany him to the scene of the crime to look for clues, the detective happily acquiesces, even though it’s quite apparent that one of these men may be the murderer.

   When the police detective comes to suspect that the fiancee of the house party host is implicated in the crime, the latter man orders the detective out of his house and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t leave. The detective meekly retreats.

   He does, however, terrorize the housemaids and threaten them with life imprisonment on bread and water in rat-infested jails if they do not answer his questions, and even allows one of the “gentlemen” to treat them so as well. (These scenes clearly are intended to be amusing.)

   In terms of social attitudes conveyed by the author, it could be England in 1860, with the police investigating the Constance Kent case. It’s instructive to compare this novel with the hardboiled tales that have come to represent American mystery — the contrast is remarkable.

   Far more than most Golden Age British tales I have read, Feathers Left Around strikes me as a real relic from the nineteenth century. That novels like this had a decent following (mostly female, judging by the book ads in the back of the book) suggests there was a significant conservative mystery audience in the United States as well as in Britain.

   Unfortunately, the novel also suggests that, though she may have had some mildly interesting plot ideas, Wells did not offer much else to engage the reader, aside from the sociological standpoint. Wells seems rather like an American Patricia Wentworth, though even the cozy Wentworth gives a more rigorous read, in my experience.

   I want my next Wells to come from near the end of her career (her last novel was published in 1942) to see if the events of the thirties ever induced her to modernize her style. Or was she still holding those same endless country house parties with the same boring society people during the Great Depression and World War Two?