Inquest (Clandon)

  • By Henrietta Clandon (=John Haslette Vahey)
  • First published: UK: Bles, 1933

The prolific John Haslette Vahey (better known as Vernon Loder) wrote half a dozen detective stories as Henrietta Clandon: wittier, more character-led novels than the Loder books, apparently a response to the crime novels of Anthony Berkeley and Milward Kennedy, and anticipating arty women writers like Ngaio Marsh and Mary Fitt. Dean Street Press reprinted four of the six Clandon books last month.

Businessman William Hoe-Luss died at his French château; he fell downstairs after eating the wrong sort of fungi by mistake. But did those mushrooms actually grow on his estate? His wife suspects foul play; months later, she invites all who were present to her English mansion for an ‘inquest’. There, another guest falls to his death.

It can’t be said that Inquest is wholly successful. It suffers from the same structural problems as many Marsh novels. The first section introduces the characters and establishes their relationships through bright, elliptical dialogue. There is more going on under the smooth conversational surface than is apparent, even if we can’t guess what it is. The second section, while fun to read, is more generic, its solution too much like an R.A.J. Walling: suspicion falls on a country house party of ill-assorted guests; business dealings lead to crime; and the first murder turns out to be manslaughter. (I prefer my murders to be ingenious and premeditated.)

The book needs a map; the directions in Ch. XII don’t make sense. (The main front runs west to east; how can Burton’s room in the east corner have a party wall with Simcox in the west corner?) There are too many jibes at the French: a grasping, parsimonious race whose doctors are incompetent butchers, who smoke tobacco that would poison an Englishman, and eat food the British consider inedible.

Contemporary review

Times Literary Supplement (29th June 1933):

Some months before this story opens a wealthy English financier, married to a lady of French extraction, while entertaining a house-party of compatriots at his château in France, had died quite suddenly from the effects (according to the local doctor’s certificate) of eating poisonous fungi.  In the interval there has been a good deal of malicious gossip, and the widow and heiress, now living in England, has all those who had been her guests on the former occasion to stay with her again, with the idea of holding a sort of informal inquest on the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death.  An improbable situation, no doubt, yet so deftly is it handled that one accepts it at the time without demur; moreover it is not long before one of this second house-party likewise meets with an untimely end, and all one’s attention is concentrated on the problem of making the one tragedy throw light on the other – a problem to which the author has a cleverly concealed solution in store.

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