The Gold Bag (Wells)


Rating: 2 out of 5.

Carolyn Wells’s second detective story is as conventional as they come. We’re still firmly in the late Victorian style of Anna Katharine Green, with long inquests and falsely suspected heroines. The situation is generic; the suspects clichéd; and the style bland and melodramatic. Curt Evans was scathing: “With disappointing detection, no clever murder methods, cardboard characters, and no interesting descriptive writing, there is not much to recommend this one.”

John Dickson Carr was a teenage devotee of Wells’s books; rereading her early works, he was disappointed they did not live up to his “pleasant memories”. Wells – and Green and Isabel Ostrander – were “lost ladies now well lost”. He may well have had The Gold Bag in mind when he described the pattern of the average early mystery.

The victim, on the eve of making a new will, was found murdered in his library. He had been stabbed with an Oriental dagger, customarily used as a paper knife on his desk. The whole room was strewn with cuff links, bus tickets, lace handkerchiefs and cigarette ends, in the fine artistry of a paper chase… The various cuff links and cigarette ends are proved to have been dropped innocently by one or other of the suspects, popping at intervals in and out of the windows like Box and Cox. Inspector Brace, desperate, is about to arrest the ne’er-do-well son when the latter’s fiancée calls in that gifted gentleman, the private detective Reginald Du Kink.

Then we get real business. It is Du Kink who discovers that the established time of the murder is all wrong, due to an effect of ventriloquism or a phonograph record of a voice, and at a dramatic gathering of suspects he fastens the guilt on the dead man’s secretary. The secretary, haggard and foaming, waits only to scream out a confession before he drinks off the contents of a small vial and instantly falls dead.

And that was that.

“The Grandest Game in the World”

Compare: Joseph Crawford, a banker, on the eve of making a new will, is found shot in his library. The crime scene is full of clues: the gold bag of the title, trolley tickets, newspaper cuttings, and rose petals. (“The real detective finds little or nothing in the way of useful material clues,” Wells wrote in her Technique of the Mystery Story. “The fiction detective finds his properties laid ready to his hand at the right moment. dropped handkerchiefs, shreds of clothing, broken cuff-links, torn letters, – all are sprinkled in the path ahead of him, like roses strewn before a bride.”)

Suspicion falls on Crawford’s beautiful niece, who visited the library shortly before the murder; on the fortune-hunting secretary; and on a few people lurking outside the window – all, of course, quite innocent. The police are about to make a wrongful arrest, but the great detective Fleming Stone swoops in, and sorts out the imbroglio in the last two chapters. And the murderer helpfully swallows a dram of poison.

In the style of the time, the inquest takes up a good third of the story. “Taken by and large, the inquest is invaluable to the Detective Story writer,” Wells thought. “It affords such necessary opportunities for cataloguing details without seeming to do so; for convincing the reader that the innocent are the criminals; for introducing and characterizing the actors; and for setting the stage with the necessary properties for the future scenes of the drama.” Wells would later do away with inquests, or pass them over in a couple of paragraphs.

The book also features one of the most inept policemen in fiction: Detective Herbert Burroughs. The subordinate detective, Wells wrote in her Technique, is usually a Central Office Man, or a young reporter, or a lawyer with a taste for detective work. “He serves as a foil for the higher detective’s glories. He makes mistakes for the other to correct. he starts false trails to lead the reader astray and to give the superior detective opportunity to scoff at him and to set him right.” Burroughs almost comes across as a parody of the type. He accuses suspects without proof, carried away by intense emotion. (“Mr. Burroughs,” the accused returns, quietly, “you must be insane.”) He almost faints with the suddenness of a discovery. He defers to his social superiors. And he falls in love with the main suspect.

  • I knew it! Then and there the knowledge came to me! Not her guilt, not her innocence. The crime seemed far away then, but I knew like a flash not only that I loved this girl, this Florence Lloyd, but that I should never love any one else. It mattered not that she was betrothed to another man; the love that had suddenly sprung to life in my heart was such pure devotion that it asked no return. Guilty or innocent, I loved her. Guilty or innocent, I would clear her; and if the desire of her heart were toward another, she should never know nor suspect my admiration for her.
  • Fleming Stone might take the case if they wanted him to; or they might get someone else. But I could not go on, when the only clues discoverable pointed in a way I dared not look.
  • “I have something to tell you.”
    “Yes,” I replied, crushing down the longing to take her in my arms and let her tell it there.
  • Truly it was time for me to give up this case. Whatever turn it took, I was no fit person to handle clues or evidence which filled me with deadly fear lest they turn against the one I loved.

Well, quite.

And yet…!

It’s not bad. Not good, by any means, but not bad. Our attention is kept firmly on the puzzle throughout. Burroughs’s deductions from the rose are solid. Wells shows talent at bringing forward suspects (e.g. Cuvyvc towards the end).

And she’s obviously trying for a least likely suspect. (Even if she lets slip whodunit a couple of chapters before the end.) The criminal is “inconspicuously in plain view from the very beginning”, as in Green’s Hand and Ring, or Israel Zangwill’s Big Bow Mystery. Gur zheqrere vf nyjnlf gurer; ur qvfphffrf gur pnfr jvgu gur cbyvpr; ur rira ivfvgrq gur ivpgvz ba gur sngny avtug – ohg ur’f arire ba gur yvfg bs fhfcrpgf. The motive, too, is solid:  the deductions about the contents of the drawer point to the villain, while Crawford’s decision to sell his stocks cause both a lesser crime (jul Cuvyvc fgbyr gur jvyy) and the murder. There’s a neat symmetry.

No, this is very far from Wells’s best work. But she would do much better. As we’ll see over the next week.

4 thoughts on “The Gold Bag (Wells)

  1. For someone I’ve never read and about whom I’ve heard little that’s overly encouraging, Wells holds a fascination for me that I honestly can’t place. Looking forward to seeing what she’s done that you rate, so that I can finally take a plunge into her output.

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    1. I’d start with Vicky Van, which both Curt Evans and G.K. Chesterton admire a lot.

      Curt and Mike Grost have found several they liked; Curt’s championed her, with the piece for Doug Greene’s festschrift and the Murder in the Bookshop reprint. But she’s uneven.

      I came across her through the Carr essay, and put her down as a writer to investigate – hugely popular American detective writer, a favourite of the young JDC.

      I once spent a day going through the University of Sydney’s collection of her books; they’d somehow acquired her library. Sixty-odd books, several of them signed. Many with art deco jackets; others with Edwardian frontispieces.

      The situations are often striking: haunted houses, curses, locked rooms, and disappearances aplenty (even though they often involve secret passages), tigers, cobras, and multiple murder schemes. They’re the kind of set-ups we like.

      I haven’t come across any that are really brilliant, but her best books are entertaining and better than competent.

      A good decade before Styles, she was writing typical detective stories- house parties of suspects, clues, movements. Her later books aren’t stodgy (she’s dropped the Victorian mannerisms by the late 1910s); they move quite quickly, and the telling and dialogue are lively, even if artificial. She can even be very funny. Sometimes even deliberately.

      As puzzle plots, they’re iffier. Fleming Stone is pure deus ex machina; he appears at the very end, knows everything, and sorts out the mess. Most of the detection is done by subordinates – eager young detectives, the police, or random members of the public. Wells’s notions of police procedure are unrealistic. But she’s skilful at spreading suspicion; there’s a lot of hunting clues, usually a few good deductions, and a couple more murders to spice up the action. The solutions are hopefully clever, but I haven’t come across a worldbeater. (Some of the later ones, Curt and J.F. Norris say, are insane.) And she doesn’t always play fair. Generally there are good, strong clues; you can glance back, and get the hidden subtext. But some clues might be kept from the reader.

      I haven’t yet read any of the dreadful ones, although I’m told that she declines drastically in the second half of her career. Curt’s scathing on The Roll-Top Desk Mystery and The Umbrella Murder, The worst I’ve read so far is The Crime in the Crypt, where the murderer is REALLY obvious right from the start. But so’s Street’s Undesirable Residence, which has the same plot.

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      1. Thanks, Nick — most comprehensive! I was aware of her popularity, and her fondness for hidden passages and other weak resolutions, I’ve just never gotten around to her because it always felt like there was someone more interesteding to check out first.

        In fact, you’ve reminded me that I have Murder in the Bookshop as it was recently reissued by HarperCollins. I shall keep an eye out for Vicky Van and perhaps go there first ahead of MitB, however. Watch…some space somewhere.

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