- By Vernon Loder
- First published: UK: Collins, 1928
- Availability: Collins Crime Club, 2016
The Mystery at Stowe was Vernon Loder (pseudonym of the prolific John Haslette Vahey, 1881–1938)’s first detective story – and if one were asked to write a typical 1920s detective story, this is exactly what one would produce: country house, curare, and a beautiful woman suspected of murder.
Languid, artistic Margery Tollard is found dead one morning, the victim of ‘native’ arrow poison. The darts belonged to woman explorer Elaine Gurdon, whose friendship with Ned Tollard had caused Margery much unhappiness. Could Elaine or Tollard have removed this obstacle to their own happiness, or are they just good friends? Jim Carton, an African Assistant Commissioner in love with Elaine, sets out to clear her name.
Loder believed the mystery story should both mystify and entertain – an admirable tenet, but he doesn’t quite put his beliefs into practice. Stowe bobs merrily enough along; the tone is bright and breezy, but the mystery is lightweight and underplotted.
Much of the detection is repetitious, and goes over the same old points: a woman in a red dressing-gown seen at Mrs. Tollard’s window, the victim’s misery. Other information (the nail in the ribbon) is held back from the reader. True, there are some promisingly clever touches that suggest Loder had potential: Jorkins’s physical condition; possible ways to fire a dart without using a blow-pipe; the doctor’s discussion of evidence in Chapter XVI.
Frustratingly, the solution is not original; Loder copied it from a late Sherlock Holmes story.
Among all his guests at Stowe House, Mr. Barley was most proud of his latest capture. Elaine Gordon was a noted woman explorer of remote South America, a collector, among other things, of the poisoned weapons used by the savages of the Amazon. Then Tragedy stepped in. A guest was found dead in her room; her husband proved to be a close friend of Elaine; Elaine no friend to the dead wife. Suspicion falls upon the innocent. Then the mystery man from Africa stepped in on the heels of the Tragedy to tackle the problem of the poisoned dart. Who drove it home, and why? What part did the Woman in Red play in the sinister tragedy? Gradually the events leading up to the murder are pierced together until the criminal is unmasked in the final thrilling chapters.
Times Literary Supplement (19th April 1928): This story begins well, with the death of a lady who is described as “aesthetic”, a poisoned dart being found sticking into her. A famous woman explorer was in the house at the time, and she had brought the dart back from South Africa. She was intimate with the dead lady’s husband, and as she and this husband were the only people who knew how to manage the blowpipe from which the dart was thrown, suspicion naturally falls on both of them. Detective stories naturally fall into a few classes, and this belongs to the pretty numerous class of which a country house is the setting. There is an amateur detective, also an explorer from Africa. There are several amusing characters to enliven the solid business of detection, but there is also a motif of aggressive philistinism running through the book. In so far as a detective story has any psychological interest, the philistine motif here provides it. One may question whether this psychology is quite sound, for it is not absolutely certain that all those who do what they should not do are necessarily not philistines. On the whole, this is a very pretty and ingenious mystery.