The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes



The story begins in Paris, where Vivian Bickerdike is waiting for the arrival of a friend. He falls into conversation with a stranger, who turns out to be Baron Le Sage. So it’s something of a coincidence when they meet again a short while later, this time as they each make their way to a country house party in Hampshire. The Baron is on his way to play chess with Sir Calvin Kennett, while Bickerdike has been summoned by his friend, Sir Calvin’s son Hugo, a young man of volatile moods who seems to have something on his mind. But before Bickerdike finds out what the trouble is, there’s a murder. One of the maids, Annie Evans, was an unusually good-looking young woman (for a maid), and had been the unintentional cause of a feud between two of her admirers. Now Annie is dead, shot with Hugo’s gun. Enter Sergeant Ridgway of Scotland Yard…

This is dire. The writing is so clunky that many of the sentences are almost indecipherable. Not that it matters, because most of them are pointless waffle anyway. Have an example:

Le Sage, in the course of a pleasant little drive with Audrey, asked innumerable questions and answered none. This idiosyncrasy of his greatly amused the young lady, who was by disposition frankly outspoken, and whose habit it never was to consider in conversation whether she committed herself or anyone else. Truth with her was at least a state of nature – though it might sometimes have worn with greater credit to itself a little more trimming – and states of nature are relatively pardonable in the young. A child who sees no indecorum in nakedness can hardly be expected to clothe Truth.

Imagine over 200 pages of this. Imagine my pain.

Challenge details:
Book: 15
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

The plotting is so bad that I would say I lost interest early on, except that would be inaccurate, since in fact at no point did I have any interest to lose. There are no clues cunningly sprinkled for the discerning reader to misinterpret – we simply have to wait for the author to get bored and reveal the solution. Unfortunately it took him far longer to reach that point of ennui than me, so I skipped the last 40%, tuned back in for the solution, laughed hollowly at the ridiculousness of it all, and deleted the book from my Kindle in a marked manner.

Bernard Capes

I’ve said it before – sometimes the books that Martin Edwards has chosen to include in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books baffle me. I can’t see that this badly-written, rambling nonsense of a book has contributed anything to the development of the mystery novel – anything good, at least – and it certainly isn’t high on entertainment value. However, Edwards says that GK Chesterton found the prose poetic – clearly Chesterton defines that word differently than I. And Julian Symons apparently described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force’. Justifiably neglected, in my opinion.

I often wonder in these cases if it’s simply that I can’t see wonders other people are marvelling over, so I checked the ratings on Goodreads, and no, I am not alone! This has an exceptionally low rating, even though it has been read by very few people and most of them are dedicated vintage crime aficionados. Proving yet again that fellow readers are often the most trustworthy guides.

So, I think it would be safe to say this one falls into the Not Recommended category.

Amazon UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….Kitty was lively; she was willing to chatter all day long and she laughed easily. His silence disconcerted her. He had a way which exasperated her of returning no answer to some casual remark of hers. It was true that it needed no answer, but an answer all the same would have been pleasant. If it was raining and she said: “It’s raining cats and dogs,” she would have liked him to say: “Yes, isn’t it?” He remained silent. Sometimes she would have liked to shake him.
….“I said it was raining cats and dogs,” she repeated.
….“I heard you,” he answered, with his affectionate smile.
….It showed that he had not meant to be offensive. He did not speak because he had nothing to say. But if nobody spoke unless he had something to say, Kitty reflected, with a smile, the human race would very soon lose the use of speech.

~ The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

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….Wednesday of the third week following the Inquest was appointed for the magisterial inquiry, and during the interval Sergeant Ridgway was busily occupied, presumably in accumulating and piecing together various evidence. Of what it consisted no one but himself knew, nor did it appear whether or not its trend on the whole was favourable or disastrous to the unhappy prisoner, at the expense possibly of Cleghorn, or possibly to the complete exculpation of that injured man. The detective kept his own counsel, after the manner of his kind; and if any had thought to extract from the cover of that sealed book a hint of its contents, no reassuring message at least could have been gathered from its unlettered sombreness. But nobody asked, fearful of being thought to profane the majestic muteness of the oracle; and the labouring atmosphere lowered unenlightened as the days went on.

~ The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

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….In the sumptuously decorated Privy chamber, four richly dressed maids-in-waiting with the Queen’s badge on their hoods sat sewing by the window. Outside were the palace gardens, patterned flowerbeds and fishponds and statues of heraldic beasts. All the women rose and nodded briefly as I bowed to them.
….Queen Catherine Parr sat in the centre of the room, on a red velvet chair under a crimson cloth of state. Beside her a girl of about eleven knelt stroking a spaniel. She had a pale face and long auburn hair, and wore a green silken dress and a rope of pearls. I realised this was the Lady Elizabeth, the King’s younger daughter, by Anne Boleyn. I knew the King had restored Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, to the succession the year before, it was said at the Queen’s urging. But their status as bastards remained; they were still ladies, not princesses. And though Mary, now in her twenties, was a major figure at court and second in line to the throne after young Prince Edward, Elizabeth, despised and rejected by her father, was hardly ever seen in public.

~ Heartstone by CJ Sansom

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. . . we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven – the living only from whom men’s indulgence and reverence are held off, like the rain by the hard east wind. While the heart beats, bruise it – it is your only opportunity; while the eye can still turn towards you with moist timid entreaty, freeze it with an icy unanswering gaze; while the ear, that delicate messenger to the inmost sanctuary of the soul, can still take in the tones of kindness, put it off with hard civility, or sneering compliment, or envious affectation of indifference; while the creative brain can still throb with the sense of injustice, with the yearning for brotherly recognition – make haste – oppress it with your ill-considered judgments, your trivial comparisons, your careless misrepresentations. The heart will by-and-by be still – ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit; the eye will cease to entreat; the ear will be deaf; the brain will have ceased from all wants as well as from all work. Then your charitable speeches may find vent; then you may remember and pity the toil and struggle and the failure; then you may give due honour to the work achieved; then you may find extenuation for errors, and may consent to bury them.

From The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

~ The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 325…

A twelfth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the first batch for 2022 and the twelfth overall…

The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

Frank Froest apparently turned his hand to mystery writing after a long and successful career in the Metropolitan Police, writing two novels and some short stories… 

The Blurb says: The latest in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins involves the murder of a notorious criminal in the home of a famous millionaire. But there are no clues, no evidence. The police are convinced that someone may have just committed the perfect crime.

The Grell Mystery was first published in 1913 and selected as one of the launch titles for the Detective Club in 1929. It was written by former Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Frank Froest, who had turned in retirement to writing successful and authentic crime novels.

“If you like a thriller with plenty of exciting incident and a clever plot you will like this first-rate detective novel by Frank Froest. Chief Inspector Foyle was confronted with the most bewildering case of his career when Goldenburg, the crook, was found foully murdered in the flat of Robert Grell, millionaire. Here was what appeared to be a perfect crime without a clue that led anywhere. But Foyle was more than a match for the arch-criminal and his masterly deduction and determination brought him a splendid triumph.”

Challenge details

Book No: 60

Subject Heading: The Long Arm of the Law

Publication Year: 1913

Martin Edwards says: “…when Heldon Foyle, Chief of the C.I.D., reflects that sometime a police officer needs to ‘put a blind eye to the telescope’ and act in a ‘technically illegal’ way so as to do justice, there can be little doubt that this reflects Froest’s own attitude.”

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The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

Another new-to-me author and apparently this was his only venture into mystery writing…

The Blurb says: A body is discovered after a shooting party in the grounds of a country house in Hampshire. The police are called in, and a clever young detective, Sergeant Ridgway, begins to unravel a much more complicated and brutal case of murder than was first suspected. But has he met his match with Le Sage, a chess-playing Baron, who is convinced that the answers lie not in Hampshire but in Paris?

After 20 years of writing in various genres, The Skeleton Key was Bernard Capes’ crowning achievement, as he died shortly after completing the book.

Challenge details

Book No: 15

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age

Publication Year: 1919

Edwards says: “Introducing The Skeleton Key, G.K. Chesterton highlighted the quality of Capes’ writing: ‘From the first his prose had a strong element of poetry.’ Julian Symons, in his seminal study of the genre, Bloody Murder, described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force‘.”

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The House by the River by AP Herbert

And another author I’ve never met before. Apparently Fritz Lang made a movie of this one, so that has to be some kind of recommendation…

The Blurb says: After the inquest, The Chase had plenty to talk about. Mrs. Ambrose and Mrs. Church were kept very busy. For few of The Chase had been actually present in the flesh—not because they were not interested and curious and indeed aching to be present, but because it seemed hardly decent. Since the great Nuisance Case about the noise of the Quick Boat Company’s motor-boats there had been no event of communal importance to The Chase; life had been a lamentable blank. And it was an ill-chance that the first genuine excitement, not counting the close of the Great War, should be a function which it seemed hardly decent to attend: an inquest on the dead body of a housemaid from The Chase discovered almost naked in a sack by a police-boat at Barnes.

Challenge details

Book No: 73

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1920

Edwards says: “Herbert’s brisk, yet at times lyrical, narrative benefits from a series of ironic vignettes . . . The reader knows the truth about the crime, but remains uncertain as to whether justice will be done or denied – and, if it is done, by what means. 

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Background for Murder by Shelley Smith

And another author I don’t know! Martin Edwards sure digs up some obscure ones!

The Blurb says: Dr. Maurice Royd, the head of a psychiatric hospital, is found slumped over his desk with his skull caved in. But a lack of hard evidence leaves the local police stumped. The difficulty is that there are too many people who could have murdered Dr. Royd, too many people who wished him dead. Any one of that ‘bunch of crazies’ might have yielded to the impulse to do it.

Private Investigator Jacob Chaos is given the case by Scotland Yard. Now time is of the essence for Chaos as he tries to get the job done discreetly, hushing up any possibility of a scandal. But it seems there is quite a lot of funny business concerning the late Dr. Royd and digging any deeper seems to start stirring up trouble.

Before he knows it, Chaos inadvertently kick-starts a killing spree. Racing against the clock with an ever growing list of suspects, Jacob Chaos must work to unravel the twisted skeins hiding the truth and catch the audacious murderer…

Background for Murder is a classic whodunit and stark exposé of human horror in the tangled worlds of sanity and insanity.

Challenge details

Book No: 100

Subject Heading: The Way Ahead

Publication Year: 1942

Edwards says: “The story is . . . narrated by a private investigator, Jacob Chaos, in a wisecracking style influenced by the more ‘realistic’ American school of writers such as Raymond Chandler – and mental illness, abortion and sexual promiscuity are discussed more freely than in typical Golden Age mysteries. The result is a book reflecting a genre in transition…”

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All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?