“It seemed as if the girl had gone out of her way to make the weight of evidence against her as heavy as possible. Yet, after all, it was just through inattention to the small details, so insignificant at the time of the crime, so terribly instructive the next day, that guilt was generally brought home.”
As is usually the case, the title of this small volume caught my attention on the library shelf. Murder at the Villa Rose, by A.E. W. Mason, is a 1910 mystery novel introducing the French detective Inspector Hanaud. It was reissued by Black Dagger Crime.
In the resort town of Aix-les-bains, a wealthy woman is brutally murdered for her jewels, and her young companion Celie appears to have absconded with them. Despite all the incriminating evidence her fiancé Weathermill is convinced of her innocence, and hires the vacationing Hanaud to investigate. Only he could be capable of sifting through the facts to reconstruct what really happened that night at the Villa Rose.
Though the premise may sound like a typical Perry Mason, Hanaud is definitely from an older school. He has a sense of superiority from his skills, referring to himself as the captain of a ship who alone determines the course. Only occasionally does his complacency slip as he shivers at certain perceived horrors. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Mr. Ricardo, another vacationer and witness whom Hanaud chooses to accompany him. The introduction has this to say about it:
It is similarly interesting and unusual in that the French detective-hero, the intelligent, middle-aged and heavy Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté is the professional crime solver of mysteries, while it is his Watson, Mr. Ricardo, who is the wealthy and underemployed dilettante.
The investigation itself is a scientific build-up of clues, extracting information from details in a manner similar to Sherlock Holmes. Hanaud takes measurements, analyzes handwriting, and makes much of the manner in which footprints were made. The conclusions he is able to draw from these are astonishing, like taking puzzle pieces that appear to fit perfectly and revealing through a magnifying glass that they do not. The downside to this is that once he has revealed the criminal, fifty pages are devoted to recreating the events surrounding the crime. It’s emotional at times, and explains well how everything fits together, but the suspense element is no longer there, making it drag somewhat. Apparently, however, the story is based on a real crime.
The other interesting factor in this story is the role of the supernatural. Celie has a background giving seances, and her murdered companion was quite receptive to them. At the time many people were fascinated with superstition, so it seems likely to have been taken advantage of.
Even though I’m far from well-read in the genre I love looking at the history and trends in detective fiction. The wonderful Guide to Classic Mystery and Detective Fiction website doesn’t seem to be a fan of Mason. It seems, however, that he was probably an influence on John Dickinson Carr (whose books I’m unfamiliar with). I really do want to try to read more older detective fiction. I love puzzle plots, and they seem much more palatable to me than today’s gritty forensic versions.