Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I do love the British Library Crime Classics series. It feels like it goes from strength to strength, or maybe it’s that this past year’s offerings have just been particularly to my taste. Either way I get more and more enthusiastic about them. Death of a Lady has such a splendid title that it would have been hard to resist (the cover is rather lovely too), add to that a Scottish setting (mid Argyle, specifically the Loch Fyne area which I know just well enough to have a good visual image whilst reading) and the appeal is complete.
Duchlan castle is a brooding confection of Scottish baronial discomfort on the shores of Loch Fyne, home to the laird, his sister Mary Gregor, his daughter in law, grandson, and a handful of faithful retainers. When Mary Gregor is found dead by her bed in a locked room, with no sign of a murderer or a weapon, the first reaction of the community is shock. Who would do such a thing to a saintly old lady? Inspector Dundas is called in but soon has to admit defeat. It also happens that the eminent Doctor and gifted amateur sleuth, Eustace Hailey, is also on the scene. He has some different ideas to Dundas, but as the inexplicable deaths start to proliferate, he to seems at a loss and it starts to look like there may be something supernatural afoot.
There are times when it all got a little confusing — people popped up in odd places and Edinburgh and Glasgow sometimes seemed interchangeable (for plot purposes here they are), but this is a minor quibble. The locked door mystery, and the subsequent murders are all on the face of it equally baffling. For fans of the genre it may be possible, may even be easy, to guess the how, but the who came as a surprise (certainly to me). It turns out that Mary Gregor, far from being a saint was a hard and difficult woman with a personality that allowed her to subjugate her family. Only her brother is truly sorry to have lost her, and that because he has no idea how to cope without her.
The how is ingenious, the increasingly hysterical atmosphere which has otherwise sensible people believing in the possibility of a mythical fish creature as a murderer (this is not a huge spoiler, it’s on the back blurb) carried me along too. I didn’t believe in the killer fish, but the darkening atmosphere was just the right side of a ghost story to hold me in thrall. The other thing that makes this book stand out is the psychological element. The slow unravelling of the Gregor family history is far more horrifying than the fish men, and Mary Gregor a much more convincing monster by the end.
In truth though, it’s the puzzle that matters most here, and it’s a thoroughly satisfying one. Wynne undoubtedly has fun with it, and there has to be a little suspension of disbelief, but it’s a good old fashioned page turner and I loved every moment of it.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Anthony Wynne, Murder of a Lady (British Library Crime Classics, 2016) 9780712356237, paperback, 288 p.p..
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