Letter R in the Crime Fiction Alphabet offered up many possibilities, but once again it was a book from my line of green Penguin Books that called the loudest.
You see that line holds many lesser known woman crime writers from the fifties and sixties. Women who created such original scenarios, such interesting characters, and who wrote about them with subtlety, intelligence and wit.
And so I picked up Shadow of a Lady by Holly Roth, hoping to meet another.
I knew nothing of the author, but the storyline was intriguing.
An American woman was driving from Paris to Geneva. Her fiance, who had been called home to England, had planned a route for her, but she decided to do things a little differently. Just a small show of independence. Sadly though, it lead her into trouble. The terrain was much tougher than she had expected, and the small British car that her fiance had given her was quite unlike the cars she had driven before. Laura pressed on, but she never reached Geneva. She disappeared.
The drama of Laura’s journey pulled me in. I liked her, I admired her spirit, and I missed her when she disappeared.
And then the scene shifted. The drama was quieter, the story moved forward through dialogue instead of action, but it was no less effective.
Some time later a trunk arrived at a Norfolk station. And it caused great consternation when it is found to contain the body of a woman who has been badly beaten, and is wearing only an anklet engraved with the letter L.
The trunk was linked to Laura’s fiance, John Seton-Smith, and the body was identified as Laura’s, by her maid and by the porter at the mansion block where she made her home.
John disputed the identification, but his was a lone voice. He could not – or maybe would not – account for the hours immediately after he and his fiancee parted.
That was infuriating, but I realised that Holly Roth was very cleverly planting a seed of doubt.
John found himself on trial for murder at the Old Bailey. He knew that he was innocent, but as the prosecution builds its case he realises that he could be found guilty.
His only hope lies with the private detective hired to trace Laura…
And so dramatic, and utterly believable, courtroom scenes are balanced by the investigations of a most practical and logical detective.
It was a fine mystery and the two principal characters made it sing. They were simply but effectively drawn in the beginning, but they gained depth as more was revealed. And yet they both retained a certain mystery. That was very clever.
I knew that there was a very simple solution to the mystery, but I was sure that it was wrong. And so I was baffled.
The end when it came was dramatic. At first I thought that the solution owed rather too much to luck, but maybe that had to be because identification mysteries are very difficult to resolve satisfactorily.
Or that maybe the author built up the mystery a little too much and made it impossible for her ending to work perfectly. There were some loose ends that made me think the book might have worked better as a whole if things had been simplified just a little.
But the quality of the writing and the characters carried the day.
And a striking twist, followed by a very clever postscript, rounded things off nicely.
I haven’t been able to explain the many strengths and few weaknesses of this book as well as I’d like, because I don’t want to say too much about the plot. So just let me say that it wasn’t perfect but it was certainly good enough to make me want to investigate Holly Roth’s other books.
And, as luck would have it, I picked up two of those other books this afternoon. But that’s another post for another day …
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
And so next week S is for … ?