JAMES ANDERSON – The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks. Poisoned Pen Press, hardcover, November 2003; trade paperback, February 2006.

   Here’s something I’ve noticed before, but it seems to have registered only in the back of my head, never to have been mentioned before to anyone. By me, at least, until now. The titles of each of the first nine mysteries written by James Anderson start with the letter “A” — ignoring the occasional “The,” as in the first two books of this particular series:

      The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg-Cosy, McKay (hc) 1977, Avon (pb) 1978, Poisoned Pen Press (trade pb) 1998.

      The Affair of the Mutilated Mink Coat, Avon (pb) 1981, Poisoned Press (trade pb) 1999 as The Affair of the Mutilated Mink.

   Anderson’s other titles, in alphabetical order, are: The Abolition of Death, Additional Evidence, The Alpha List, Angel of Death, Appearance of Evil, Assassin, and Assault and Matrimony.

   In the late 1980s Anderson also wrote the first three Jessica Fletcher paperbacks, tie-in’s with the Murder, She Wrote television series. (These do NOT start with the letter “A.”) And that seems to have been all, until just recently.

   But other people than myself seem to have remembered the first two affairs taking place at Alderley with great fondness, and several years ago Poisoned Press reissued them as part of their Missing Mystery series. Then, according to the publisher, the manuscript for this, the third adventure of Detective-Chief Inspector Wilkins arrived, unexpectedly to everyone.

   And so the Earl of Burford, George, his wife Lavinia, and their daughter Penelope are back again, which is good, no, terrific news. Nor I should fail to mention their stalwart butler Merryweather, who steadfastly aids the family throughout all three murder cases.

   But as Wilkins implies on page 129, it was inevitable. “You know the old saying, ‘Never two without three’.” Lord Burford had tried earlier to resist. “After the last two house parties, we agreed no more.” But Great Aunt Florrie’s wishes are not be denied, and since she expressed the desire to be buried at the parish church, there is no getting around it, and after the funeral the mourners have to be invited to their country house, Alderley.

   Not only that, the reading of the will is to take place there as well, necessitating overnight guests again, all distant relatives. In the securely locked house, someone, it turns out, has murderous intentions upon another.

   This magnificent throwback to the 1930s, which of course is when it takes place, is filled with people who have both hidden secrets and secret desires, none of which they wish known; witty (and often cutting) dialogue; near farcical encounters in the night; and almost more clues than you can imagine.

   Behind a rather sanguine facade, Wilkins is quite a detective, and at the end he patiently and impressively goes through each of the small hints and other pieces of evidence that brought him to his final conclusion — who did it and how, and how he found out.

   It’s quite a challenge for an author to produce a period detective novel that’s also humorous and a fair play mystery as well, and two out of three is not bad. I was very suspicious of one of the characters, and rightly so, but after the explanations are over, it’s clear that not even the cleverest of armchair detectives could have worked the solution out on their own. Wilkins has the resources, the reader doesn’t, and the reader is not told of the crucial details until too late.

   In summary, then, it’s an “almost, but not quite,” which is still better than 90% of the detective novels written today. And unless Mr. Anderson can be persuaded to write another, or he has one locked away in a trunk somewhere, I also have the feeling that this may be the end of the series. I hope I’m wrong.

— November 2003

[UPDATE] 10-26-12.   Unfortunately I was not wrong. This was the last of three cases to be solved by Inspector Wilkins. The author, James Anderson, died in 2007.

   Jeff Meyerson’s review of The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy can be found here earlier on this blog.