Presteignton Hydro is not a fashionable, top class resort. The twenty or so permanent residents are retired people of the professional middle classes – widows, spinsters, military men. Run by Dr Williams & his staff, the Hydro caters for those with small private incomes & an infectious love of gossip & scandal. Like any closed community in a Golden Age murder mystery, the residents encompass many different but familiar types. Miss Astill, the sheltered spinster with religious leanings; Miss Brendon, the elderly invalid losing her sight but kept informed by her devoted companion, Miss Rogers; Mrs Napier, who pretends that she has lost the use of her legs although no one really believes this; snobbish Lady Warme, a widow who flaunts her love of opera on the strength of one visit to La Scala but whose husband made his money in groceries; Mrs Marston, who is at the Hydro with her irritable invalid husband & two young daughters & my favourite character, would-be detective novelist Mrs Dawson, who is trying to become a writer to make enough money for her son, Bobby’s education.
The male residents are less inclined to gossip but are just as eccentric. Admiral Unwin, who loves crosswords & Colonel Simcox, always needing help with his knitting. The Admiral is being pursued, if you believe the gossip, by Nurse Hawkins & the colonel is besotted with a newcomer, a beautiful young woman, Antonia Blake. Another new resident, Sir Humphrey Chervil, is also interested in Miss Blake & the gossips are enthralled by the potentialities of this love triangle. After a concert, organised by Lady Warme, where Miss Blake obligingly steps in at the last moment as accompanist, she & Sir Humphrey are observed lingering in the lounge. Next morning, Miss Blake is discovered in the lounge by the housemaid. She’s dead, with a steel knitting needle plunged into the back of her head.
Inspector Palk & Sergeant Jago take up the investigation & soon arrest Sir Humphrey when Miss Blake’s jewel box is found on the top of his wardrobe. However, when a second murder occurs, with the same modus operandi, the Inspector has to consider the possibility of a second murderer imitating the first or could he have arrested the wrong man? The investigation is very entertaining as almost every person he interviews accuses someone of the crime. The atmosphere of gossip & suspicion is very well observed & the claustrophobia that the Hydro induces, especially as the residents are forbidden to leave, creates tension. A new resident, Mr Winkley, who fancies himself as an amateur detective, upsets the residents with his blundering questions but the police seem to be no nearer a satisfactory solution. There are so many unanswered questions – why was Miss Blake at the Hydro at all when she never took any treatment? What connection could Miss Blake’s murder have with the second murder? If they were committed by the same person, then Sir Humphrey must be innocent & the murderer must still be at the Hydro but Inspector Palk believes the evidence against Sir Humphrey to be strong.
Mrs Dawson unfortunately seems to have plotted out Miss Blake’s murder in her notebook before it happened but she is more concerned about plotting the second & third murder for her novel because, of course, there must be more than one murder in a detective novel, the public expect it. Mrs Napier may just be a nutty old lady looking for sympathy or she may be cleverer than we think. Nurse Hawkins was left alone with the victim of the second murderer & seems to have something to hide. Inspector Palk approves of the doctor’s attractive secretary, Miss Lewis, but is she just a bit too clever? It proves difficult to discover the murder weapon when nearly all the women & the Colonel knit & there are knitting needles in every room in the place. The murder method demanded a certain amount of medical knowledge but as Dr Williams’ medical books lie scattered in every room, it would be easy enough for anyone to discover the vital information. Harriet Rutland manages to keep all her characters distinct in the reader’s mind which isn’t easy to do with a cast as big as this. Inspector Palk is a dogged detective who nevertheless needs a little help in coming to a solution but it’s all very satisfyingly wrapped up in the end.
This is an excellent mystery with a lot of humour & a satisfyingly convoluted plot. I also enjoyed the acute social commentary, that the retired middle classes tend to take people on trust & believe that they are who they say they are as they’re too polite to make enquiries. I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s similar point in her 1950 novel, A Murder is Announced, that no one produces letters of introduction anymore so how do you know who they really are? This is very convenient, of course, for a writer of mysteries & I was interested that, far from being a post-war phenomenon, it could be just as true in the late 1930s.
I was sent a review copy of Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Dean Street Press. As well as Knock, Murderer, Knock!, which was published in 1938 & therefore perfect reading for the 1938 Club, they’ve also published Rutland’s two other novels, Bleeding Hooks & Blue Murder.