CATHERINE AIRD – Henrietta Who? Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1968; Bantam, US, paperback reprint, 1981. Macdonald, UK, hardcover, 1968; Corgi, UK, paperback, 1988.


   Aird’s primary mystery-solving character is Detective-Inspector C. D. Sloan, who’s appeared in all but one of her books. Whether he’s been promoted since his early outings — this was only his second appearance — I can’t tell you, since (I am embarrassed to say) I have not read any of his more recent ones.

   And if there is anything to be learned about his private life in any of his other books, it would be more than may be found in this one, which is nothing at all.

   In Henrietta Who? he’s the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department for the police in Berebury, and as we’re told, it’s a very small Department. His assistant on this case — and also along many of those to follow, I believe — is Constable Crosby, who (as we shall see) is not always the brightest of subordinates. His Superintendent is a gruff, old-fashioned sort of fellow named Leeyes.

   If there were first names given, I missed them. I do not even believe Sloan’s initials were stated, except on the back cover. The emphasis is on the mystery, and for the most part, it’s a good one.

   This was Aird’s third mystery. Her second one, A Most Contagious Game, was the standalone, the only one that Sloan did not appear in. While she knew what she wanted to do — and for at least 90% of the book she succeeded in doing exactly that — there are a couple of weak points that a more experienced writer might have been able to improve upon.


   The story: When a woman is killed as a pedestrian by an automobile whose driver didn’t stop for help, it wouldn’t ordinarily bring Sloan in, but the woman had a daughter, and the pathologist who examines the body says she never had a child.

   The girl’s name is Henrietta, who never knew her father, and abruptly called home from university, she is suddenly not only an orphan, but she has no idea who she is. No birth certificate (possibly stolen), no passport, no other form of identification. A total mystery.

   Sloan is working almost entirely in the dark, with the only information provided by the girl, and she might not be telling the truth. It makes Henrietta Who? a rather unique tale, as far as I know, and the intellectual stimulation generated by the problem Sloan and his cohorts must solve is, in a word, contagious.

   Don’t get me wrong. This is no dry exercise in mental calisthenics. Aird has a dry, understated sense of humor that must be like mine, as it appeals to me immensely. On page 71, Sloan is bouncing ideas off Crosby, and he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere:

    “No record [Sloan says] of any Grace Edith Wright marrying any Cyril Edgar Jenkins within five years of either side of when the girl thought they did.”


    Crosby took another sandwich and thought about this for the length of it. Then “Grace Jenkins must have had a birth certificate.”

    “Wright,” said Sloan automatically.

    Crosby, who thought Sloan had said “Right,” looked pleased and took another sandwich.

    “Though,” continued Sloan, if she’s Wright, why bring Jenkins in at all, especially if she’s not married to him.”

   Crosby offered no opinion on this.

   Great fun, and the plotting very nearly works. But as far as I can tell, there’s a huge hole a small lorry could plow through, and that’s because it doesn’t seem likely the person who’s the second murder victim — Henrietta’s “mother” was the first — would have kept quiet about the secret that the woman had been keeping for all of those years, not now when she’s dead, and with the newspapers and radio on full alarm about her death.

   Other than that, with all of the red herrings and other false trails that have to be sorted through, this is one fine case of detection — everything else falls into place just the way it should.

— September 2003

[UPDATE] 06-22-12. The very plain cover of the British hardcover edition shown above on the lower right has a very nice surprise inside. Scaled down in size, it may not be as impressive here as it would be if you were holding the book in your hand, but a map of the area where a fictional crime is committed is always a bonus as far as I’m concerned, and this one is a nice one indeed:


   When I wrote this review in 2003, I didn’t specify a count of how many Sloan books there were at the time, but there have been three written since, for a total of 22, the most recent one being Past Tense, published in 2010 when the author was 80. I should check. I don’t believe that many of the last few have been published in paperback in the US, and if I’m correct about that, it’s a shame, as Aird is an author who ought to be better known, and she isn’t.