I admit that I still feel a little ambivalent about the rise of e-books. Part of the ambivalence may have to do with the apparent devaluation of books that they seem to have ushered in—well, e-books as well as the horrifying decline in the number of people who would ever consider reading a book in any format. But the larger part of my resistance has, I admit, always been considerably less about social concern and more about my fetish for old (and, for that matter, new) books and how they feel in my hands, the satisfaction of turning real pages, the smells, and all that jazz. I know many of you share that preference, so I won't bother to elaborate.
On the other hand, I also have to admit that lately, my resistance has been breaking down for purely pragmatic reasons. In the past year or so, Bello Books has released affordable e-books not only of more or less the complete works of Edith Olivier, one of my favorite unknowns, but, more recently, a whole slew of impossibly obscure novels by Richmal Crompton, which I'm still busting to sample when time allows.
But probably nowhere is the resurgence of lesser-known women writers more evident that in the mystery genre. The British Library reprinted Mavis Doriel Hay's three novels and are planning to bring back Lois Austen-Leigh's vanishingly rare The Incredible Crime early next year. Most of Ethel Lina White's novels are now available as well, including The Third Eye, which was added to my Grown-Up School Story List at a time when I thought it was going to be impossible to track down but which is happily now waiting patiently on my Kindle for me to have time for it. Many of the novels of A. Fielding and Elaine Hamilton are also now available in affordable e-book format. And this is not to mention the fact that even such a big name as Gladys Mitchell has now seen (almost) her entire body of work made easily available, something that was probably rarely (if ever) the case even in her lifetime. There are still more lost authors to rediscover (just have a gander at my Mystery List if you don't believe me), but it's pretty wonderful how much progress has been made.
And adding substantially to that progress has been Dean Street Press—who, I should note, release their titles both as old-fashioned physical books and as e-books, though the e-books are the most tantalizingly economical—who in the past couple of months have breathed new life into the works of two lost Golden Age mystery authors. First, a couple of months back, they released two mysteries by Ianthe Jerrold, The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930)—and I am cursing myself that I read and quite enjoyed the first of those, but never got around to discussing it here. And then, just this week (I am, indeed, more timely with this review than I have probably ever been before!), they've released seven of the twelve mysteries written by Annie Haynes, who in her too-brief career was highly praised, but fell into obscurity after her premature death. (I understand they're planning to release the other five as well, in due course.) In the cases of both Jerrold and Haynes, these are the first reprints of the books in many, many moons, and are in most cases their first ever appearance in the U.S.
Who Killed Charmian Karslake? has been a tantalizing obscurity for me ever since I came across a photo of the original dustjacket when I first added Haynes to my Overwhelming List, so I had to start my exploration of Haynes' work by reading that one. It's the last novel Haynes actually finished, published the year that she died prematurely at age 63, though she wrote a substantial part of one additional novel, The Crystal Beads Murder, which was finished by an as-yet-unidentified fellow mystery author (mystery scholar Curtis Evans, in his introduction to the Dean Street editions, speculates based on textual evidence that it may well have been Lucy Beatrice Malleson, best known later on for many successful mysteries under the pseudonym Anthony Gilbert).
|Original dustjacket of the American edition|
Haynes proves to be a no-nonsense kind of writer, and the novel has little unnecessary explication, moving at a swift, jaunty pace. It opens over breakfast in a country manor house on the morning after a lavish ball. From the opening lines, one can hardly miss the Jazz Age ambience in the characters' dialogue:
“Beastly mess the place seems to be in,” grumbled Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton, looking round the room with a disgusted air.
“Well, if you will give balls you have to put up with the aftermath,” said Dicky, his younger brother, screwing his monocle in his left eye as he spoke.
“Your wife was a great success. She roused us all up.”
Dicky looked pleased. “Good-looking kid, isn’t she? And lively—she has got the goods, you bet.”
(Fortunately, the flapper-ish lingo doesn't stand out quite so much once the story is well under way.)
Talk quickly turns to the guest of honor of the night before, the celebrated American stage actress Charmian Karslake:
“Charmian Karslake, if you mean her! She is all alive from the crown of her lovely head to the toes of her pretty little feet."
And there is surely a trace of very dark humor in the fact that even as this line is uttered, Karslake is lying dead in her room, the victim of a gunshot wound to the heart.
What adds an additional layer of interest to this rather standard, if intriguing, opening is that, although the actress has purportedly never been to England until her current gig in a hit London play, and although she presumably knew no one at the ball the evening before, she was overheard (but not seen) greeting someone in a hallway with the words, “Well, Mr. Peter Hailsham, we meet again, do we?” The trouble is (naturally) no one named Peter Hailsham was at the party, and the only such person known in the neighborhood was an eccentric elderly man who had died years earlier with no surviving family. Who could she have been greeting, then, and why was she shot a few hours later, following a struggle in her room? What's more, how could she have commented to Lady Moreton, while admiring the view from the window of her room, ‘Why, the big oak over there by Craxton Church has gone!’ It is this added twist, the fact that the novel is not only a whodunit, but also what one might call a whoisshe, which made it completely addictive reading for me.
Among the useful and hitherto unearthed biographical information in the introduction is the fact that, well before Haynes began publishing in book form in 1923, she had written various other serial novels starting in the 1910s or even earlier. Curtis Evans, who has his own fascinating blog called The Passing Tramp, where he has been discussing Haynes recently, points out in his introduction that her mysteries retain some of the elements of this earlier, more sensationalistic fiction, and while I usually have a short fuse when it comes to melodrama, I found the traces of it here quite entertaining and completely in keeping with the book's Golden Age feel—as, for example, when the victim's body is first discovered:
Sir Arthur went nearer and bent over the quiet form. He took one of the cold hands in his and let it fall again.
“Dead!” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Dead, and cold! Poor soul! Poor soul! What could have made her do it?”
“Made her do it!” echoed one of the men who had followed him in. “Man alive! Don’t you see”—pointing to two tiny burnt holes in the midst of the red stain, and then waving his hands round the disordered room—“how she has struggled and fought for her life? Charmian Karslake has been foully, brutally murdered.”
And although humor isn't generally at the forefront here, there's no question that Haynes can be quite charmingly funny when she wants to be. There is, for example, some gentle mockery of Americans—mainly in the form of a wealthy in-law who blusters about and complains of the ineptitude of British police. I perversely love the caricatures of Americans that appear pretty regularly in British fiction—and I generally find more than a grain of truth in them. There's a more subtly humorous portrayal of one of Charmian's old theatrical acquaintances, whose vanity, appearance, and archness make her seem like a delightful, rather low-class reject from a Josephine Tey novel. And finally, although the detectives investigating the case don't seem to have been intended to stand out very much (at least I hope not, as I kept mixing them up right to the end), there is one very funny exchange between them about women's fashion, which particularly caught my eye:
Here poor Charmian Karslake’s gold frock lay over the back of a chair as she had thrown it. He went across and felt it over. Harbord came in and stood beside him.
“You won’t find anything, sir. All the women have given up pockets, confound them!”
“Yes. And the bags they carry instead they never can remember,” the inspector added. “It is always—‘Where is my bag?’ What they do it for I can’t imagine. Fancy a man having his pockets fastened up and carrying his keys and money and everything in a bag which he dangles about by the handle.”
“Some of ’em haven’t got handles either,” Harbord said, as his sharp eyes glanced about the room. “My sister’s hasn’t. She just carries it about tucked under her arm, a pochette she calls it. She told me handles had gone out of fashion, the other day.”
“So have brains, I should imagine,” grumbled the inspector.
Curtis Evans' introduction notes that in the 1920s only two women mystery writers were published by the prestigious Bodley Head publishing house. Annie Haynes was one and no lesser figure than Agatha Christie was the other (Christie of course famously got rather screwed over on royalties by Bodley and left them at her first opportunity, but nevertheless…). Now, say what you will about Dame Agatha, but taking into account her enormous popularity, her readability by fans of all ages and from numerous cultures and backgrounds, and the sheer brilliance of many of her puzzles, precious few other mystery writers can bear a direct comparison to her.
I'm not going to claim that Haynes can fully stand up to Christie either—you probably wouldn't believe me if I made such a claim anyway. But I do have to admit that it was Christie who most frequently came to mind for me in reading Charmian Karslake. Like Christie, Haynes is first and foremost a puzzler—her characters are interesting and varied and vivid, the dialogue is lively and fun, but the focus is more on plot than in-depth character development. Haynes' objective, it seems to me, is to keep readers obsessively turning pages and wondering what can possibly happen next as her intriguing plot twists and turns. And it's surely a sign of how well she succeeded if I note that, reading on the train during my morning commute one day, I was so engrossed that I very nearly missed my stop.
It might also be evidence of how much I enjoyed Charmian Karslake that I already three more Haynes novels queued up on my Kindle. I have a feeling I'm going to wish she had written more than 12 mysteries...