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Anybody but Anne, and Murder Will In

November 20, 2008

Tuesday was my birthday, so I chose to spend the day at the library. The main branch of the New York Public Library, to be precise. The have a gigantic non-circulating collection of old books they’ve taken off the shelves because no one is interested in them anymore, but if you get an access card, you can request that they let you look at them for a while. You fill out little slips — no more than three at a time — and then, in less than half an hour, they bring your books up in a dumbwaiter, and you get to pick them up at a desk in the main reading room, which has the coolest ceiling ever. It’s probably the size of a football field, and it has all these nooks and crannies that look like they’d be really fun to climb on if the ceiling were somehow turned upside down. Which, yes, is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.

Anyway. I spent about five hours there and read two Carolyn Wells mysteries, Anybody but Anne (1914) and Murder Will In (1942), a title that has always interested me.

The title of Anybody but Anne comes from the narrator’s oft-repeated mental plea that someone besides Anne be found guilty of the murder of Anne’s husband, David Van Wyck. Mr. Van Wyck has decided to give all but a small fraction of his fortune to the neighboring village so that it can have a library, much to the chagrin of his second wife, Anne, and his two grown children. Fortunately for them, he gets stabbed to death before he has a chance to sign the deed of gift.

The mystery is not why anyone should choose to kill Van Wyck, but how it could have been done. He’s found in a locked room, stabbed once in the heart, and the murder weapon is nowhere to be found. I am never able to figure out the solution of locked room mysteries until nearly the end, but that is partly because certain things are generally agreed upon, i.e. that a secret passage is a cop-out, and not fair play on the part of the author.

I feel like Carolyn Wells has reneged on a contract. There is a secret passage, which is found by master detective Fleming Stone about two chapters after he arrives to investigate (about three chapters before the end of the book). For some reason, the only person besides Van Wyck who knew about the passage was Condron Archer, a friend of Anne’s who is in love with her. Why Van Wyck, who is notoriously jealous, would have confided this secret to a man widely known to have been in love with his wife is never explained, but it does leave Anne clear to marry the narrator at some point in the future. I love Carolyn Wells, and, as I’ve said, I find locked room mysteries properly mystifying, but I recommend that you try Raspberry Jam or The Curved Blades instead.

Murder Will In was better is some ways, but still unsatisfying. There is a murder of a beautiful young woman and an unrelated missing person with a gap between her front teeth, but the whole thing seems to have been got up for the exclusive benefit of Brand Herrick, the character accused of the murder. Unlike all the other male friends of Alma McLeod, the murderee (much more fun to say than ‘murder victim’; see Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise for a discussion of pushers v. pushees), he’s not in love with her. He is, in fact, a fine, upstanding young man who is put off by her forwardness. But Brand is supposed to have been the last person to see her alive, so he is thrown into jail on the basis of very little evidence.

Enter Fleming Stone. He appears more in this book than in Anybody but Anne, but he’s mostly there to talk about how much he likes Brand Herrick and how innocent Brand is. When the murderer turns out to be Alma’s husband Hugh, it’s a reasonable enough solution, but it seems like a digression because it doesn’t involve Brand. The other storyline involves Brand’s recently dead uncle, who left all his money to Brand provided that Brand finds the uncle’s only other surviving relative and marries her within three months. The girl, of course, immediately falls in love with him.

I liked Fleming Stone more than usual in Murder Will In, mostly because he seems almost human, There’s a great bit where Brand’s lawyer convinces Stone to take his case by making sad puppy eyes at him and purposely not mentioning that Stone owes him a favor. But the book was ultimately dissatisfying because Brand Herrick isn’t really a strong enough character to succeed as its center of gravity.

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