The Dressing Room Murder by J.S. Fletcher – a classic 1931 murder mystery republished by Oreon at The Oleander Press

The Dressing Room Murder by J.S. Fletcher

Theatrical murder mysteries are always a hit with me, and this 1931 novel recently republished by Oreon at the Oleander Press is a terrific read in the fine traditions of alibis and much more. Joseph Smith Fletcher wrote many detective stories (including The Yorkshire Moorland Mystery which I have reviewed) and this one is satisfyingly complex and introduces some excellent characters. Set in a small Yorkshire town, the fictional Hatherford, the action of the novel revolves around the town’s central theatre and a bloody murder which takes place in the main dressing room. Not that there is brutality or excessive gore, this novel stays true to the Golden Age pattern of puzzle rather than violence. The puzzle is elegant and well developed, as secret entrances, a small town’s worth of suspects plus a theatre company and adherents and a very specific time of murder is established. The two main detectives, Marston the Chief Constable, and Detective Sergeant Stell, are determined, well connected and occasionally inspired, but not infallible as various leads emerge and must be discounted. I enjoyed this story of a community beset by the murder of a man who has just returned to the area after a long absence and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The novel opens with Marston and two other town worthies enjoying a drink in the Hyacinth club. The urgent message is relayed to Marston that Sir John Riversley, actor manager of a visiting theatre company, has been found murdered in his dressing room at the Theatre Royal, just before his performance as Hamlet. While the police officer is a relative newcomer to the district, he is quickly informed that Riversley was born and brought up in the town, and that this engagement of his players marks his first return since his career has taken off so spectacularly on a worldwide basis. The weapon is in situ, the actor’s own rapier plunged into his back while he sat at his dressing table. His traumatised dresser and the stage door guardian reveal that the actor was a creature of habit and had only arrived at the theatre a short time before, leaving a small window of opportunity for his attacker. While such a person had not used the stage door to enter and exit, anyone with knowledge of the theatre would have known of other ways to access the dressing room. As Marston and Stell begin to investigate, it seems that there are those with a motive to dispatch the actor, ranging from some in his own Company to a distressed fan from the other side of the world. It also emerges that there may well be those who bear the famous man a long standing hatred from his youth in the town, especially as Yorkshire people are apparently good at bearing grudges. As potential suspects emerge, there seems to be several leads, but alibis, defences and so many other aspects of the matter must be worked through, not least the victim’s own secretive behaviour in the hours leading up to the attack. Can Marston and Stell solve this mystery before anyone else is put in danger?

This is a well written mystery which kept me guessing until the end with its layers of clues and leads. The setting is well used, with vivid accounts of locals and those connected with the theatre company. This is in many ways a classic mystery containing so many elements of the Golden Age of detective fiction, and I recommend this reprint as a really good read from the time and representing the genre so well.

The Yorkshire Moorland Mystery by J. S. Fletcher – A Classic Murder Mystery reprinted by Oreon, the Oleander Press

The Yorkshire Moorland Mystery by J S Fletcher

I read a lot of Golden Age Detection novels – republished crime classics from the early part of the twentieth century. This reprint from Oreon Press really grabbed my attention for its simple formula – a mysterious murder on a lonely Yorkshire moor, the intervention of Scotland Yard, but also the determination of two people known to the victim. I read it in record time, enjoying the characters of the suspects, the witnesses to the progress of the victim, the mixture of detection styles on display. J. S Fletcher was a skilful writer who spent a lot of time and care on constructing convincing settings, consistent characters and a plot that stands up well. It is a novel of its time, full of the details of women’s lives as well as men’s, with lots of exciting travelling thrown in. Labelled a Bibliomystery, it focuses on the world of rare books, editions so valuable that it can affect lives, and those who come into contact with them. The description of this book asks “Would anyone commit violent murder for one musty old book?”, but in this novel it is certainly a consideration. I enjoyed this book for its straightforward storytelling, with its clever working out of a murder mystery.

The novel is narrated in the voice of a Captain Mannering, a young man who has fought in the “Great War” and is now seeking employment and by chance finds a temporary but lucrative position with a Dr Essenheim, a well known American book dealer in London to buy rare books to take back for his wealthy clients. For a fortnight Mannering stays in the Carlton hotel, witnessing his employer buying books in a speedy but knowledgeable way, attending sales and parting with immense sums for sometimes seemingly unimpressive tomes. A European tour is planned, but before it begins Essenheim disappears, walking out of the hotel and simply not returning. On enquiry Mannering is told that this is not uncommon behaviour, as the older man will sometimes disappear for days in pursuit of a certain volume. It is only when a Essenheim’s nephew Frank turns up that questions are asked of his solicitor Heddleston and bank, where they are told the disappeared dealer was carrying a large amount of money. When a newspaper report into the discovery of a man’s body appears, Frank and Mannering are compelled to travel to Kirkenmore, Yorkshire, a small market town. On arrival they meet Superintendent Calvert and the investigation begins. Tours of the countryside, interviews with public house landlords and their staff, meetings with local landowners and everything else contribute something to their knowledge of Essenheim’s progress in the area, but the number of potential suspects in such a sparsely occupied area seems limited, especially on the pathway. Nevertheless the investigators discover something of those who saw Essenheim on the days in question, and observations of those he met. The identity of the mysterious young woman he met, and indeed why such a wealthy man walking alone on a lonely moor in pursuit of rare books are questions which confront the investigator and indeed the reader. As the action of the novel returns to London and other places, the investigation builds into a complex conclusion.

This is a very enjoyable book which I found a fascinating and absorbing read. While perhaps not the most sophisticated of classic crime novels, its attraction is its clear mystery and its book related theme, as well as a fine sense of place. The characters are well drawn throughout, and it is a good read which I recommend. I would like to read more JS Fletcher!