The Hand in the Dark
Arthur J. Rees
First published in the UK, 1920, by John Lane, The Bodley Head
This edition: Project Gutenburg
A third Arthur J. Rees read for me – see The Shrieking Pit and The Moon Rock – I’d recommend checking him out if you want to fill your e-reader up with very solid Golden Age mysteries. Rees was an Australian-born author who clearly loved the English landscape and its ancient monuments.
Seen in the sad glamour of an English twilight, the old moat-house, emerging from the thin mists which veiled the green flats in which it stood, conveyed the impression of a habitation falling into senility, tired with centuries of existence. Houses grow old like the race of men; the process is not less inevitable, though slower; in both, decay is hastened by events as well as by the passage of Time.
The moat house has belonged to the Heredith family since the Civil War. The elderly Sir Philip Heredith shares it with his very ‘county’ daughter Alethea, his invalid son Phil, and Phil’s wife Violet, who strikes a jarring note, what with inviting her modern friends down from London and all.
The spectacle of a group of modern ladies laughing and chatting at tea in the cloistered recesses of the terrace garden struck a note as sharply incongruous as a flock of parrots chattering in a cathedral.
It was the autumn of 1918, and with one exception the ladies seated at the tea-tables on the lawn represented the new and independent type of womanhood called into existence by the national exigencies of war. The elder of them looked useful rather than beautiful, as befitted patriotic Englishwomen in war-time; the younger ones were pretty and charming, but they were all workers, or pretended workers, in the task of helping England win the war, and several of them wore the khaki or blue of active service abroad.
The revels are interrupted by a scream and a shot from Mrs Heredith’s room. A group runs upstairs immediately, to find Violet shot dead, and no killer in evidence. Her husband Phil falls into a stupor, leaving family friend Musard to coordinate the traditionally futile search of the premises.
The detectives arrive on the scene quickly. Detective Caldew of Scotland Yard is a local boy who is staying with his sister in the village. Caldew sees this juicy murder as his chance to hit the big time.
Caldew’s professional experience had imbued him with the belief that the junior officers of Scotland Yard existed for no other purpose than to shoulder the blame for the mistakes of their official superiors, who divided amongst themselves the plums of promotion, rewards, and newspaper publicity. That, of course, was the recognized thing in all public departments. Caldew found no fault with the system. His great ambition was to obtain some opening which would bring him advancement and his share of the plums.
However, Caldew’s plums are soon squashed by the truculent Superintendent Merrington, an old hand who has reached the ornamental stage of his career, and ‘regards the world as a larger criminal court’. Merrington charges through the evidence and the witnesses like a bull in a china shop. The housekeeper’s daughter, Hazel Rath, is the first and most obvious suspect, and is quickly locked up.
However when Phil Heredith wakes up from his faint, he swears that Hazel is innocent and brings in the great detective Colwyn to clear her name and catch the real culprit.
Colwyn, the star detective of The Shrieking Pit, is actually a bit of a plodder compared to his fictional rivals. His method seems to be largely successful because the police are incompetent and he spends a bit more time than they do actually looking at things. The locked-room mechanism is ingenious, but the evidence would have been discovered (if not decoded) by a half-competent police search long before Colwyn came along.
As an example of Golden Age detection, The Hand in the Dark is, well, exemplary. I preferred Rees’ The Shrieking Pit, but this is still a spot-on country-house murder mystery. And the sexual politics are great…
The two women formed a striking contrast in types: the strong, rugged, practical country lady, and the fragile feminine devotee of beauty and personal adornment, who, in the course of time, was to succeed the other as the mistress of the moat-house. The difference went far beyond externals; there was a wide psychological gulf between them—the difference between a woman of healthy mind and calm, equable temperament, who had probably never bothered her head about the opposite sex, and a woman who was the neurotic product of a modern, nerve-ridden city; sexual in type, a prey to morbid introspection and restless desires.
Vintage Pop Fictions: Having three detectives all trying to solve the case more or less individually is an interesting touch. Even more interesting is that Rees shows us how the personality of the detective can impact on his investigation and how this can often lead him astray.