The Mayfair Mystery
First published 1907 by Mitchell Kennerley as 2835 Mayfair
Published 1929 by the Detective Story Club Ltd
This edition HarperCollins, August 2015
Source: Bodies from the Library
The Detective Story Club was launched by the publisher Collins in 1929, and was the forerunner of their famous Crime Club. It aimed to publish cheap hardback editions of mystery novels. Now the Detective Story Club has been relaunched with a collection of lovely little books – attractive covers and nicely embossed dust jackets. I was delighted to find The Mayfair Mystery, one of the first tiles, in my goodie bag at Bodies from the Library.
The body of a man in evening-dress lay on the dull, crimson carpet.
This is Sir Clifford Oakleigh, Bart, physician and man about town, inventor of miracle shaving cream ‘Baldo’, all-round genius, who is reported as dead in chapter two by his valet Reggie Pardell.
Pardell is chary of the police, but informs Oakleigh’s best friend, the barrister George Harding. When they arrive at Oakleigh’s house, the body has gone. In fact, Oakleigh is up and about for most of the book. Pardell is probably mad, concludes Harding.
Then Harding meets a captivating woman at a party and falls head over heels in love with her. Miss Clive is somewhat mysterious. She appears to have come from nowhere, and pays an oily man called Augustus Parker to introduce her into society as his niece. She lives in Mayfair (her phone number, 2835 Mayfair, ‘the most beautiful telephone number in the world’, was the original title of the book). In fact, by an incredible coincidence, Miss Clive is a tenant of Clifford Oakleigh.
Meanwhile, the drab young daughter of Harding’s clerk Mingey has vanished without trace. Harding displays about as much concern for Mingey’s daughter as you would a mislaid shoe. Most of this disdain seems to stem from the fact she wears glasses (one doesn’t warm to Harding). Oh, and the last doctor she saw was… Clifford Oakleigh.
By now, you’d have though Harding would have spotted something was fishy, but he sails on regardless.
Around halfway through the book I stopped reading it as a Golden Age detective novel, and started reading it more like a G. K. Chesterton exercise in whimsy. This is definitely the approach to take as the story takes some decidedly odd turns.
For example: beards.
As usual when tackling a reprint, I left the introduction (this one by publisher David Brawn) until the end, meaning I was somewhat puzzled by the many references to facial hair in the book. Apparently this was all part of Frank Richardson’s schtick. ‘He conducted in most of his books a veritable crusade against what he called “face-moss”‘ said one of his obituaries.
And that’s just one of the strangenesses.
Overall, I think The Mayfair Mystery is a period-piece. A bit satirical, a bit of a mystery (but not quite – it was published at a time when the conventions weren’t in place), but most of all a bit of an oddity. The last-but-one paragraph is probably unique in the annals of literature:
‘I have come out of it very well. I have only lost my leg, and… Miss Mingey’s soul – which was scarcely an asset. But I have got you, George, haven’t I?’
I’d love to know what contemporary readers made of George’s response. Moral maze doesn’t cover it.