‘But what wrong have I ever done you?’ came the frenzied cry. ‘Why should you strike me such a blow in the back, man? Haven’t I been your lifelong friend? Why should you stab at me because you are the younger man, and have a handsomer face to look at, and can talk small with the women, d–n you? What wrong have I done you? You knew that I had set my heart on winning a girl’s love, and, just because of that, you step in, and wheedle her away with your mincing cavalier manners. Curse you!’
The author Robert Fraser was in fact a partnership between M. P. Shiel (whose ‘decadent’ Prince Zaleski mysteries I found so terrible I couldn’t even finish them), and Louis Tracy, who judging by his titles in Project Gutenberg, seems to have been something of all-rounder.
The scene is the remote and somewhat backward Yorkshire village of Hudston a love triangle has developed. Pretty young Marjorie Neyland had returned from being an artist in London and set alight the hearts of two local gentlemen.
Squire Robert Courthope is a red-faced gent of the fox-hunting, blue-cheese-and-pass-the-d–n port variety. There’s a heart of gold beating murmuringly under his waistcoat – alongside a liver of foie gras – and a hot head sitting on top of his cravat. He has pinned his hopes on Marjorie turning his life around.
However, Marjorie favours the cash-strapped nephew of the local vicar, Philip Warren, who has a noble heritage but only a few quid to his name. Honestly, he’s not much of a catch. They’re in the first flush of infatuation and Marjorie’s already ignoring his mansplaining.
‘I must explain that in heraldry, the dragon is next in importance to the griffin, which is a compound of the lion and eagle. The dragon appears to have had its origin in the stories brought by travellers, who, on their way to the Holy Land, may have seen the crocodile on the banks of the Nile-‘
‘Now listen!’ whispered Marjorie with a fresh start.
‘I don’t seem to interest you to-night – listen to what?’
The Squire is set on marriage but catches Marjorie and Warren canoodling out on the moors one night. Furious at being betrayed by his old friend, he offers Warren a deal: A duel, and the winner gets to keep Marjorie and all of the Squire’s lands (wouldn’t want the lady condemned to a life of poverty, would we old chap?). Warren agrees.
There is one more corner to the triangle, possibly making it a quadrilateral. Or a rhombus? Anyway, the Squire’s cousin James Courthope has one eye on inheriting his lands and the other on Marjorie. He has high hopes of the Squire’s liver packing it in early, planning to swoop in to pick up the inheritance and the maid. The Squire’s idiotic duel plan threatens to leave James impoverished on a permanent basis, and stuck with Marjorie’s envious and plainer sister Hannah instead. He has to act. Skulduggery ensues, with the upshot that an innocent man looks like a murderer, not helped by his fleeing the scene of the duel.
Inspector Webster from the Yard picks up the case. He is a bit annoyingly secretive (shades of Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cluff), but obviously on the side of the angels, and he has an interesting gimmick – he reconstructs the scene of the crime using lead soldiers:
My stage, my puppets. Shakespeare says that ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,’ you know. I saw the truth of those lines early in life, and I hardly ever investigate a crime now without reconstructing it in my little theater. You have read how the French do the same thing with living actors. That must be fine.
Webster’s job is complicated by bent solicitors, obstinate innocent parties, and everyone being in love with each other. He gets there in the end, but only with some help.
There is a hint of more to come from Webster – ‘I have been engaged recently on a fine case, the impersonation of a dead man by a woman’ – but I don’t think this ever surfaced.
How 1907 is this book? It’s hard to tell – I was thinking it felt Victorian (post railways and Scotland Yard, but still very strait-laced) but then there is mention of an ‘electric brougham’ which makes it bang up to date – this picture must be Marjorie and Hannah in happier days.
Three Men and a Maid
First published in the US by Edward Clode, 1907
This edition: Off the internet
New York Times book review from 1907: (by the way the review contains a massive spoiler) The keynote of the tale is the rivalry of the three men for the hand of Marjorie Neyland. She is only the village inn-keepers daughter, but she has had the advantage of spending much time in London, and is the object of her sister’s venomous jealousy. One of the three is found murdered, and as his death is greatly to the benefit of the other two and the piling up of the circumstantial evidence in the affair is both enormous and enormously mystifying, it will be seen whither Mr. Fraser’s ingenious fancy wanders, but it would be a thousand pities to spoil a splendid story by telling any more about it than that it is well worth reading.
RogerBW’s Blog: The confounding factor throughout this story is Hannah, Marjorie’s older and harder sister, who regards herself as James’ bride-to-be. (James has different opinions on this matter at different times.) As is proper in a mystery, it is the actions of the bad people which cause the story: but it’s not at all obvious just who caused each problem, or how it came to happen, and they’re not by any means united in purpose. There’s more than just a murder to be solved, and the series of events as finally reconstructed is entirely in keeping with the personalities of each character as we’ve seen them drawn. This isn’t a traditional problem-solving mystery of the “who could have been where at which time” sort, but rather one in which you need to work out who might have done a particular action, and who else couldn’t because they’re not the sort of person who would.