By A. Fielding
First published: UK, Collins, 1931
This clever Inspector Pointer detective novel deals with two strange murders which follow each other at Upfold Farm. A little brass box with a damaged St. Mark’s Lion on the lid mysteriously appears and disappears as each murder is committed. The box is of no value, contains nothing of value, and is not used as a message, but its position is directly responsible for the second death. It presents a perplexing problem to Inspector Pointer, but by skilful reasoning he discovers its meaning, and forms his theory. The Upfold Farm Mystery is one of his most baffling cases, and the manner in which he builds up his theory from the slender evidence at his disposal is a perfect example of detective skill.
I’ve had bad luck with A. Fielding. A decade ago, I read her last book, Pointer to a Crime (1944), which was poor, and gave up on her first, The Eames-Erskine Case (1924).
The Upfold Farm Mystery is patchy. Parts of it are well written, with a sly sense of humor, and vivid characters – particularly the roaring artist Scullion, who’s great fun. At other times, the writing is Victorian, or inept.
I thought how strained and pale he looked. He was the kind never to forget that dreadful sight when he had turned with a commonplace remark to the girl sitting knifed to her chair back.
True; most people completely forget when they see someone skewered to the dining room furniture.
Then, too, the story is full of inconsistencies. Chapman suddenly becomes Gladman at one point, and Supt. Gibbs apparently tells the story twice on p. 212.
The same patchiness applies to the mystery. Think of the great detective stories; there’s always a terrific premise.
A collector invites four detectives and four murderers to play bridge. A mad archaeologist decides to find out what the Mysteries of Eleusis were. The Lord Chancellor is shot while acting in Hamlet. A corpse is displayed in a department store window. An invisible man walks out of a building, carrying a body. The murderer has a Mother Goose fixation. “O my God, Helen! It was the band!” Death on the Nile, on the Orient Express, in the clouds!
The murder of an artist in backwoods Britain doesn’t really cut the mustard, even when killed with a bolas. (Balls!) It’s not a very compelling problem. The middle section of the story drags. Towards the end, characters pop between England, Switzerland, and Belgium from paragraph to paragraph.
Things pick up when Inspector Pointer, Fielding’s series sleuth, enters, on p. 211 of 252. His cryptic remarks about the mysterious box are in the best style. It held nothing, stood for nothing, was of no intrinsic value whatever, and was neither a warning nor a portent – yet a girl was murdered because she was known, or seen to have it in her possession.
The solution really is clever. It’s one of those where you go back and reread the relevant passage, to see what you missed, and how you were fooled. It’s as ingenious as a certain red stain on a trouser leg. And it all makes sense of that box, too!
I’ve come across the solution in other stories – in a Christopher Bush, I’m fairly sure, and certainly in a Carr and a Sayers, but this may be the first use.