The titular “Silent Witness” in R. Austin Freeman’s fourth Doctor Thorndyke adventure does not only have an unfortunate name, Humphrey Jardine, (“which people seem disposed to confuse with that of a well-known edible fish”). He’s also a generally unfortunate young man who gets caught in the British rain during a routine stroll , and then stumbles upon what appears to be the corpse of a priest. But, after seeking help from the police (a constable, an inspector, and a sergeant are conveniently waiting close by) Jardine finds that the corpse has disappeared, promptly concluding any investigation.
Jardine’s troubles are not over, though. After consulting the brilliant Doctor Thorndyke, (“The Great Unraveller”) the young man, who is just starting in the medical profession, gets hooked up with a gig at a private practice. There, he learns about the death and subsequent cremation of one Septimus Maddock. AND THEN gets trapped and immured in a lethal gas chamber (he escapes, thrillingly). AND THEN someone pushes him off a bridge into murky waters (he gets fished from the waters by some earthy sailors). AND THEN a runaway horse tries to stomp him to death, (he dodges nimbly).
Someone wants Jardine dead, but why, when he doesn’t have an enemy in the world, and in fact seems to have two lovely young women in love with him?
Doctor Thorndyke solves the mystery… via a convoluted chemistry lesson that proves that even the ashes of the dead can tell stories, when correctly interrogated.
Also in whodunit land, Margery Allignham’s “Mystery Mile” is the second Albert Campion novel, after “The Crime at Black Dudley”. Here the quick-talking “Bertie” comes to the forefront, but I’m assured this is still not Allingham at the height of her powers. The character is taking shape though:
Mr. Albert Campion: Coups neatly executed
Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebeian
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object
“Mystery Mile” starts well enough, on a Trans-Atlantic Ocean liner, where Campion “accidentally” interrupts a misguided magic show designed to electrocute a renowned American, a Mr. Crowdy Lobbett. Those surrounding Mr. Lobbett have met ill-fates as of late, as Campion is informed:
“First his secretary, seated in his master’s chair, was shot. Then his butler, who was apparently after his master’s Scotch, got poisoned. Then his chauffeur met with a very mysterious accident, and finally a man walking with him down the street got a coping stone on his head.”
To which Campion replies: “Four murders in his house within a month? That ought to be stopped. He’s been told about it, I suppose?”
The problem appears to be that Lobbett holds a clue about the identity of the sinister Mr. Simister, an elusive criminal mastermind whose identity you will guess very early on. To protect Lobbett, Campion moves him to a bold manor in the remote, marshy Mystery Mile of the title. But peace will not be found: after the ominous visit of a very well informed palmist, the local rector commits suicide, leaving behind a set of mysterious notes and one clue: a red chess knight.
(An improvement on the first novel, as I had been promised, but the emphasis on Suffolk dialect and the easily guessable villain kept me from full enjoyment.)