Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

さよならさえ伝えられなくて
それでも僕は今日此処を出てゆくよ 
また素敵な誰かに会えるかな 
気紛れで自由な暮らし僕は野良猫 
「NORA」(Garnet Crow)

Without even saying farewell
I left this place today
I hope I can meet with a wonderful person once again
Whimsical and living freely, I'm a stray cat
"NORA" (Garnet Crow)

English-language mystery novels don't pass by here on this blog that often anyway, but I think that the Roger Scarlett re-issues have at least prevented an all-time low this year.... Phew.

Inspector Kane series (Roger Scarlett)
The Beacon Hill Murders (1930)
The Back Bay Murders (1930)
Cat's Paw (1931)
Murder Among The Angells (1932)
In The First Degree (1933)

When you're a millionaire, people tend to put up with whatever you do. History already proved that when the city of Boston decided that Martin Greenough's Gothic mansion, complete with tracts of lush lands with hills for some pleasant horse-riding, would remain, and that the planned major road would have to go around it.  So when Martin's siblings died, they naturally made their well-to-do brother the legal guardian of their children, and "Cousin Mart's" nephews and niece also learned to give in to his whims. While Mart was not particularly emotionally invested into them, he always shared enough of his fortune so they could go out in the world and enjoy themselves with whatever vice they had, but they also remained financially dependent on him as he strictly forbade them to make any money of their own, even well into their adulthood. This was of course not a problem as long as Cousin Mart would provide for them financially and they would inherit his fortune after his death, but the announcement on his birthday that Cousin Mart would finally marry his long-time companion Mrs. Warden certainly caused some panic, especially when he said he'd need to have a talk with his laywer the following day. And this time, Cousin Mart misread the situation horribly, as he's shot dead the same night, and it is up to Inspector Kane of the Boston Police Department to solve this family matter in Roger Scarlett's Cat's Paw (1931).

Cat's Paw is the third novel by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair, who wrote together under the name Roger Scarlett. All five of their novels are set in Boston, and feature Inspector Kane as the main protagonist, often assisted by narrator/laywer Underwood and Sergeant Moran. As you might remember, I have read the five books in a rather peculiar order: I first read the fourth novel, Murder Among the Angells, as it was easily available in Japanese some years ago. Then this year, I read the fifth novel, In The First Degree, then followed by the first and second novel (The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders). There's no distinct chronology in these books (or at least, nothing vital, besides a "hey, remember the time we solved that case?"), so it doesn't really matter in what order you read them, but my reading experience turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

When I first read Murder Among the Angells, I was fascinated by the presence of the setting of the story, an oddly L-shaped mansion where the murders took place. The curious architecture and closed-off location with a Gothic atmosphere made not only an impression on me, but also several influential Japanese mystery authors like Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi and through them, on a fair amount of Japanese detective authors after them (see for example Ayatsuji Yukito and his House series, which is obviously about murders that take place in houses with idiosyncrasies). The eeriness of the location was taken even further in In The First Degree, which featured a plot that admittedly relied less on the layout of the place, but more on the atmosphere, as it had a distinct, Gothic horror tone to it with suspicious inhabitants acting as suspiciously as possible. In my mind, this focus on location and the effect it had on its inhabitants had to be a focal point in Scarlett's writing.

So imagine my surprise when I read The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, in which the locations made less of an impression on me. Sure, they were still set in big houses set in Boston, but they were not as daunting. They were not closed-off, Gothic houses, and while the inhabitants had their characteristics, it wasn't as if you really felt something was brewing like in Murder Among the Angells or In The First Degree. The mystery plots in these first two novels were also very focused on the alibis of each of the characters and their movements in the buildings, which could make the novels feel a bit slow to read as you'd be stumbling about timestamps all the time. Anyway, the gap between these two novels, and the last two novels was quite large in my mind, so when I started with Cat's Paw, I expected, or at least I hoped it would prove to be the key to this change in tone across five novels.

And that it was. Mostly. I mentioned S.S. Van Dine and Philo Vance a lot when I reviewed The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, and I'd say that Cat's Paw borrows a bit from Ellery Queen this time, most obviously in its structure: the novel is divided in four parts, The Question, The Evidence, The Case and The Solution, each focusing on a different part of the tale. This dividing of the chapters in distinct parts is something you often saw in early Queen novels, and you'd almost expect Scarlett to also play with the initials of the chapter names (I checked, there's nothing there sadly enough). The Question is a very short prologue, while the bulk of the book is made up by The Evidence and The Case. The Evidence shows us the couple of days leading up to Cousin Mart's murder, as his nephews (and if applicable, girlfriends/wives) arrive in his Boston home per Cousin Mart's wishes. The seeds for the murder are planted in this part, but it might also ask a lot from the reader: more than half of the novel is devoted to this build-up to the murder. You get a good sense of the tension building up in the house, and most of the red herrings and vital clues are set-up in this part, but I can't deny that it can be a bit tedious, as there's no formal detecting going on here yet, it's all mise-en-place (as Mart's not been killed yet). Most of the red herrings and clues do work because they are given the proper amount of time to develop though, so I would say the length was a deliberate design choice. It's also in this part where you can see how Scarlett's style shifted from the alibi/movement-focused story to a more atmospheric story with disfunctional families as seen in the latter two novels. The Greenoughs are all dependent on Cousin Mart's finances, but it's obvious none of them really want to be dependent on him all the time, and every one of them appears to have a reason for wanting Mart dead as they pretend to be nice inside his Gothic mansion. The step to Murder Among The Angells, where a family is ruled by a will of the former patriarch is not a large one.

Cat's Paw moves a lot faster once we get to The Case and The Solution. In The Case, Sergeant Moran conducts some preliminary investigation, while Inspector Kane takes over in The Solution, using the facts and discoveries made in the previous two parts... or does he? The solution proposed by Kane is in the same tradition as the previous two novels, with a focus on possible character movements during the proposed time of the murder (though less focus on the floorplans this time), but the solution also takes a bit more from Queen this time, especially in his focus on physical clues, but Scarlett does at least one thing differently from Queen (in his prime), and that is in the department of fair-play. That Kane gets a few good guesses based on instinct rather than real clues, okay, I can live with that because he actually finds clues to collaborate his suspicions and this is some time before the final conclusion, but the final piece of evidence turning out to be one that Kane that had not been mentioned once until he unveils it to Underwood and Moran, that's not playing fair. What's even more vexing it's actually part of a different clue that had been discussed earlier: Scarlett only chose not to mention that other characteristic at all until Kane did in the final pages, even though it was the decisive clue. The thing is, the mystery plot is actually quite good, with twist and turns and mostly adequate clewing, and with good use of red herrings that were set-up in The Evidence that still manage to help out the main mystery plot in a good way, so why slip up on something like an unfair, final clue?

Having read all five of the Scarlett novels now, I think the first one I read, Murder Among The Angells is still the most enjoyable one, with a more unique premise to set it apart. Both Cat's Paw and In The First Degree are good too, with Cat's Paw a more traditional mystery story and In The First Degree taking its cues from Gothic horror novels in terms of atmosphere. The first two novels, The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders aren't bad per se, but they resemble each other a lot, and in comparison with the later novels, not as entertaining a read.

But to conclude with Cat's Paw: Scarlett's third novel is one of potential, and of missed chances. It manages to break away from the first two novels which were too much alike, and it feels much more ambitious, with its formal division in four parts and a more intricate mystery plot, but it isn't completely fair to the reader either. Granted, by far most of the book can be solved perfectly by the reader based on the clues presented, and even making an educated guess as to the identity of the murderer is quite possible but obviously, holding out on the last clue will result in a weird aftertaste, especially considering the Scarlett novels have mostly been following the Van Dine/Queen school which focuses on fair play and physical clues.

5 comments :

  1. I was hoping 'Cat's Paw' would rival 'Murder among the Angells'... But at least it's comforting to know that all five novels are by the least decent.

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    1. Yeah, none of them are anywhere near actually bad, and I think there are definitely interesting ideas in each of them.

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  2. Hello

    Could you please tell me who this is where and is he from ?

    https://www.google.fr/amp/s/gamp.ameblo.jp/mo-mojun/entry-12336926506.html

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    Replies
    1. He's the protagonist from the TV drama 99.9 (in the drama, played by Matsumoto from Arashi).

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    2. Thanks

      Do you know if it's good ?

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