Monday, July 22, 2013

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929), by Annie Haynes Part Two

The murder of Charmian Karslake, a celebrated American stage actress, occurs during a house party at Hepton Abbey, near Hepton, a village located in England somewhere near Wales (I'm thinking Shropshire, lads).

Hepton is the "quaintest of old villages," and to the typical villagers the Penn-Morton family, the ancestral owners of Hepton Abbey, represent "the ruling class, all that they knew of rank, or wealth, or culture....[T]he King and Queen were higher, but then the King and Queen did not come in the way of the Heptonians. Sir Arthur and Lady Penn-Moreton were enough."

Charmian Karslake is shot in her locked bedroom at Hepton Abbey (apparently no one heard the shot, though this matter is passed over by the police) and her famous sapphire necklace has disappeared. Soon Scotland Yard Inspector Stoddart is on the scene, along with his mysterious...assistant? colleague?, Mr. Alfred Harbord.

I have to admit that I was confused by Harboard's exact position in the police.  He appears with Inspector Stoddart in at least four of the dozen Haynes novels, The Man with the Dark Beard (1928), The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929), Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929) and The Crystal Beads Murder (1930)--maybe his exact position is better explained in one of those books!*

*(another police detective, Inspector Furnival, is the sleuth in Haynes' earlier The Abbey Court Murder, 1923, and The House in Charlton Crescent (1926) and The Crow's Inn Tragedy, 1927)

Stoddart is an appealing British copper, of the solid Inspector French school of Freeman Wills Crofts, a tremendously popular British detective novelist in the 1920s.  No scintillatin' gentleman amateur detectives here, although Dicky Penn-Moreton certainly talks like one, eh, what?

Potential suspects in Charmian Karslake's murder are Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton and his wife Vita; Dicky Penn-Moreton and his wife Sadie, daughter of Silas P. Juggs, American millionaire (canned soup); and brilliant barrister John Larpent and his fiancee, Paula Galbraith.  And of course there are a couple servants to consider, Charmian's French maid, Celeste ("she knew the value of her smiles too well to be prodigal of them"), and the Hepton Abbey butler, Mr. Brook ("like Homocea, always on the spot").

Most of the novel consists of engrossing delving by Stoddart and Harboard into Charmian Karslake's personal history.  Interestingly, while Haynes' country house denizens are a gallery of country house cliches (although amusing ones), Haynes' shopkeepers, workmen and show people are more substantive.  I especially liked the the music hall performer Tottie Villers, who I suspect Haynes based on the infamous Dr. Crippen's slain wife, Cora (aka Belle Elmore).  The Crippen case is referenced in the novel, along with the Thompson-Bywaters murder (1922).

Surprisingly, an occasional sentiment antagonistic to the upper classes appears in the novel.  Former Heptonians tell Stoddart "I have no use for such a place as Hepton with its petty class restrictions" and "Many's an errand I've done for 'em [the Penn-Moretons] and had a copper chucked to me like as if I was a dog."  There's a bitterness to that last comment that has a ring of historical truth.

Overall, however, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? is very much a British country house mystery in the classic mold.  The plot does not have the technical dexterity of the Humdrums nor the sheer ingenuity of a Christie, but I found the narrative fast-paced and enjoyable.  Haynes even manages something of a surprise ending, although I felt some plot strands were left dangling (for example, there's the matter of that locked room....).

I think fans of the British cozy should enjoy this one and that it thus merits reprinting.  As Dicky Penn-Moreton noted over his breakfast bacon and kidneys, British balls can bring on sticky wickets; but, gracious me, for the classical mystery fan these deadly country house kerfuffles can make most enjoyable reading.


  1. Utterly fascinating Curt - I, like most I would suspect, have never heard of the author so this was a totally unexpected entry from you (as I'm getting used to (sic)) - amazing what's out there! Thanks.

  2. But where do you draw these authors, Curt?
    Never Known!
    The interview is on the web.

  3. It's my aim to highlight the obscure and forgotten!