(Vintage 2013, originally published 1901)
E. F. Benson is well-known for his Mapp and Lucia books, full of snobbery and bitchiness and small-town intrigues, but he also wrote this mystery novel (along with The Blotting Book, also recently re-issued by Vintage). Having been written before the genre really got going, it doesn’t abide by the rules of traditional detective fiction, and the villain is obvious from the start, but it’s a nice piece of history.
Harry Vail has just turned twenty-one, and come into his inheritance as Lord Vail, with an encumbered estate in Wiltshire. Celebrating his birthday with him are his only friend, Geoffrey Langham, and his great-uncle and heir, Francis Vail. In the hall at Vail is a portrait of Francis, second Lord Vail, not the nicest of men, painted with a gem-studded cup, the Luck of the Vails; this cup has been recently found in an attic, and Francis Vail explains its history when he arrives. The Luck is thought to have a curse attached:
For when the Luck of the Vails is lost,
Fear not fire nor rain nor frost;
When the Luck is found again,
Fear both fire and frost and rain
The finding of the Luck seems to have reawakened the curse, for not long afterwards Harry suffers from a series of minor accidents involving fire, rain and frost. He takes the theory of a curse only just sufficiently seriously to think of it as a good luck charm, but later events seem to show Geoffrey, more suspicious than his friend, that accidents can be manipulated.
Harry meets and falls in love with Evie Aylwin, who turns out to be connected with his great-uncle: Francis was thought to have engineered the death of Miss Aylwin’s step-brother in a shooting accident, but was cleared of the crime on the evidence of a doctor, with whom he appears to have an odd relationship.
As a series of more serious accidents occur, Geoffrey’s suspicions, along with their friend, Lady Oxted’s, are heightened, and only at the conclusion of the novel are they able to persuade Harry of the identity of his enemy.
This is a rather slow-moving book, and it’s written in a rather old-fashioned style. As previously mentioned, Benson doesn’t try to disguise the identity of the villain, though he does a little bit of ambiguity with respect to Dr Armytage and his motives, and Harry comes across as a little naïve and unwilling to believe his friend’s suspicions, but believably so, and his being torn between two friends is realistic and well done.
The characters are well drawn, and although there’s a touch of stereotype in the portrayal of Lady Oxted, she’s shown to be intelligent and resourceful; likewise, Evie is appealing and her relationship with Harry is carefully drawn and well-developed. The opening of the book reminds me of a cinematic tracking shot, as Benson describes the setting, of Vail in the short winter’s twilight, gradually coming from the village to the house, and then focussing on the two young men just having come in from shooting.
The book is very much of its time in its class attitudes, but Jim, one of the grooms (who bears a very strong likeness to Harry), becomes a major character, and the others treat him with respect. The misunderstandings which are engineered seem realistic, and I like that Evie is willing to have her suspicions explained rather than taking a huff and flouncing off.
It’s not the most imaginative crime novel ever written, but it winds up to a nice climax, and justice is done.