Mrs Blackwood was a widow, young, attractive, and of a psychic turn of mind. Not enough of an occultist to make her a bore, but possessing quick and sure intuitions and claiming some slight clairvoyant powers. She dabbled in water colors, and did an occasional oil. She was long-limbed, with long fingers and long feet, and usually had a long scarf of some gauzy texture trailing about her. Of an evening or even on a dressy afternoon, she had a long panel or sash-end hanging below her skirt, and which was frequently trodden on by blundering, inattentive feet.
Good-looking, of course, Claire Blackwood was,— she took care to be that,— but her utmost care could not make her beautiful,— much to her own chagrin. Her scarlet lips were too thin, and the angle of her jaw too hard. Yet she was handsome, and by virtue of her personality and her implicit belief in her own importance, she was the leader socially, notwithstanding the fact that the colony disclaimed any society element in its life.
commentary: For many of us taking part in Rich Westwood’s regular Crime of the Century meme over at Past Offences, this month’s choice of book made life quite difficult – we had to find, read and review a work of crime fiction first published in 1922, and it turns out it was not a vintage year.
One obvious choice would be Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, but I covered that earlier this year. Of course plenty of books were published in 1922, but the craze for crime fiction hadn’t really got going then, it was early days.
I got wind of a book by early crime writer Isabel Ostrander: it was called The Tattooed Arm, and I thought that was a great title, but I couldn’t find a copy of it. So next choice was Carolyn Wells, an amazingly prolific crime writer who wrote more than 170 books in all (not all crime titles.)
Betty Varian was an easy, entertaining read. It sets up a holiday house on a cliff in Maine, with only one way in and out up a rocky path. A group of family and friends ventures forth on a picnic: at the last moment the daughter of the house runs back to collect a forgotten item. She fails to return, so her father goes to look. Next thing we know, we have a dead body and a missing young woman – but apparently there is no way any malefactors could have got in or out, and nowhere for the young woman to have gone. So that’s a pretty good setup. To modern eyes, nothing much happens then for a long long time, except for a lot of fruitless searching, and repeated claims that there is no way in or out except via the front gate, which is locked and under observance. Various parts of the house are given special attention, by several people, and we are assured that they completely check out.
NOT REALLY A SPOILER ---
-- but I have a grudge against a locked room, a disappearing person, a sealed up space where it turns out that someone was lying, or mistaken or just not very observant. That is not, to me, an adequate solution to the crime.
But – Mrs Wells was something of a pioneer so we’ll let her off. One of her series detectives now turns up: a man called Pennington Wise (later references to Penny Wise confused me slightly) with a very strange female assistant called Zizi. They investigate the family background of Betty Varian, the missing girl – it’s not difficult for a modern reader to get one step ahead, but it is a complex and interesting tale.
As a book of 1922 it was highly enjoyable, with plenty of fascinating details. I was charmed that on the day in question, all the staff are out of the house because they have all gone to the circus: every servant in the neighbourhood has gone. The matriarch of the family says later:
I’ve never stayed nights in a house without a man in it,— beside the butler, I mean.Someone else goes missing, but his straw hat is still in the hall:
The man must have been forcibly carried off. He couldn’t have walked out without collar, tie or hat!When the villain is uncovered, the evil one declaims:
“Bad I’ve lived and bad I’ll die. You’ll never find Betty Varian….”-- I quite regret the fact that no modern author would put that in a book.
And – most unlikely feature of all, completely unexpected – silent-movie-making and lipreading play a small but vital part in the book.
I would never have read this book except for the 1922 challenge, and I am glad I did, though will probably not be reading more by Wells.
The picture above, with the eminently steppable-on and annoying long gauzy scarf, is from a fashion advert of the 1920s.