Beautiful American actress Charmian Karslake has been a big success at the Golden Theatre in London. Unlike most famous actors, she doesn’t spend her time attending parties & social events. She’s something of a mystery. So, it’s surprising when she agrees to attend a ball given by Sir Arthur & Lady Penn-Moreton at Hepton Abbey. She has only just met Lady Penn-Moreton who is surprised & quite gratified when Miss Karslake accepts her invitation. However, on the morning after the ball, Charmian Karslake is discovered dead, shot through the heart & flung across her bed. Nothing appears to have been stolen apart from the beautiful sapphire ball that she called her mascot & wore all the time. Was robbery the motive for the the murder or could there have been a more personal reason?
The house party at the Abbey are the main suspects for the murder. Sir Arthur’s younger half-brother Richard, known as Dicky, has recently returned to England with his young American wife, Sadie, daughter of millionaire Silas P Juggs. Their return was the occasion for the ball. Barrister John Larpent, an old friend of Sir Charles, was there too with his fiancée, Paula Galbraith. It soon becomes clear that Charmian Karslake may not have been the stranger to England she seemed to be. She may not have been American at all. Several people recognized Charmian at the ball but said nothing & she may have had her own reasons for accepting the invitation that had nothing to do with dancing.
Inspector Stoddart & his assistant, Harbord, arrive at the Abbey under some pressure to clear the mystery up as quickly as possible. Charmian’s French maid, Celeste, says that she saw a man creeping along the corridor & enter her mistress’s room but she couldn’t see his face & wouldn’t have recognized him if she had. Further investigations reveal that a family called Carslake had once lived in the area so could Charmian have changed the spelling of her name & could she have connections in Hepton? Charmian was heard to address an unseen man as Peter Hailsham but the only man of that name was an old rag-and-bone man who lived by the canal & died years before. The mascot she always wore, the sapphire ball, was said to be cursed & had been owned by several unfortunate women including the Princesse de Lamballe & Queen Draga of Serbia, both murdered. Stoddart & Harbord determine that Charmian wasn’t killed on the bed but moved there afterwards but what could be the reason for that when every moment that the murderer spent in that room could lead to discovery? The investigations into Charmian’s past are interrupted by a vicious attack on another member of the house party & Stoddart’s suspicions have to be reassessed.
I’ve been enjoying the Inspector Stoddart novels by Annie Haynes very much. This is the fourth I’ve read, all reprinted by Dean Street Press. As much as the mystery plots, I enjoy the minor characters that Haynes brings to life in just a short scene. I especially enjoyed Dr Brett who is rumoured to have been on intimate terms with at least one of his patients; Mrs Sparrow, the cleaner at a London church that proves crucial to the mystery & music hall artiste Miss Villiers, who knew Charmian Karslake before she was a star. Silas P Juggs, the canned soup magnate, reminded me a little of Silas Lapham, another self-made man.These minor characters are more interesting that the Penn-Moretons & their friends or even than Charmian herself. We never meet her alive as the discovery of her body begins the book & we only get to know her through the recollections of others.
Who Killed Charmian Karslake? is an intriguing mystery & it’s reassuring to know that Stoddart & Harbord will doggedly get to the solution. The Introductions to the Haynes novels by Curt Evans are also interesting & reassuringly spoiler-free. It was Curt who rediscovered Annie Haynes & did allot of research into her life & the reasons for her novels being almost completely forgotten since her death in 1929.
Dean Street Press kindly sent me a copy of Who Killed Charmian Karslake? for review.