A Chain of EvidenceAugust 27, 2013
The time has probably come for me to face the facts: Carolyn Wells was not a good mystery novelist. I mean, nothing can take away from my love for Vicky Van, but it’s the exception, not the rule. The rule is a book where, when you’re told that a young woman has a domineering husband or relative, you know who the murder victim is going to be. The rule has a massively annoying narrator who is usually a lawyer, even more usually in love with the woman freed by the murder, and absolutely always an idiot.
A Chain of Evidence has perhaps the most stupid narrator of all, a lawyer named Otis Landon who has just moved into an apartment across the hall from the one occupied by Janet Pembroke, her bedridden uncle Robert, and their maid, Charlotte. Robert Pembroke is the inevitable murder victim, and he’s found stabbed in the back of the neck with a pin one morning. The catch is that the murder happened at night, after the security chain on the door was on, so no one should have been able to get in without breaking the chain.
Landon is in the middle of falling in love with Janet at first sight (a process which, with him, apparently takes several weeks) so of course she can’t be the murderer. And Charlotte is assumed by everyone to be a moron, although mostly they seemed to be basing that assumption on the fact that she’s black. Also a big pile of cash is missing. It’s a good setup, I guess, but I know how Carolyn Wells deals with locked room mysteries — secret passages and acrobats — so I had pretty low expectations.
I don’t even know how low my expectations would have had to be to prepare me for Otis Landon. There’s a way in which his thought processes could be considered incredibly realistic: he constantly changes his mind about things without acknowledging it, or observes things and draws a conclusion exactly opposite to the truth for no apparent reason. Also he thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is. Much as I’d like to, though, I can’t find any indication that Wells means for the reader to take him at anything but face value. He has to be willfully stupid for story to drag out to novel length, and so he is — but I don’t even know if Wells even realized that that was what she was doing.
To sum up, if you’re reading a Carolyn Wells mystery and you get excited about Fleming Stone being called in, the book you’re reading is kind of lousy. I’m not necessarily going to stop reading Wells’ mysteries — every once in a while they are fun, and my fondness for her isn’t terribly rational anyway — but this is the point where I stop having any expectations. This book was awful, and I knew at every step exactly how awful it was going to continue to be, and in what ways. I’d keep complaining, but I got what I deserved.