By Carolyn Wells
First published: USA, Lippincott, 1909
This is the first mystery by Carolyn Wells, the Florence Foster Jenkins of the detective story.
In her day, she was one of America’s best-selling mystery writers, and the teenage John Dickson Carr devoured her books.
Posterity has generally been less kind.
“The worst cock-and-bull story ever put together by a rational being,” Barzun and Taylor thunderously denounced The Mystery of the Sycamore.
“The things said and done in this pseudo-political tale would not only not get published today, but would get the author committed by her loving friends and relatives.”
J.F. Norris has an acerbic critique of Wells’ work, “The Carolyn Wells Technique, or: How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Love the Mess”.
In The Technique of the Mystery Story it is clear Wells has a wide reading knowledge of the writers of her period and those who came before her…. With all this knowledge she still has no real understanding of how to construct and write a detective novel. She is quick to condemn the “hackneyed devices” but will use them herself. She discards useful conventions that move a story forward and invents some of her own that bog down the flow of the action. When it comes to putting it all together Carolyn Wells is more like the wannabe painter who throws buckets of paint on a canvas and sloshes around in it and then expects it to be accepted as art. Anyone else will look at it and call it a mess. But a loveable mess if you have an appreciation for her mastery of the early American alternative classic mystery.
Curtis Evans writes more favourably about her on his Passing Tramp blog. While he acknowledges she “produced a lot of extreme clunkers”, and that “most of the stuff she produced in the last twenty years of her mystery-writing career ranges from indifferent to dreadful”, he finds many of her works charming. (See, for instance, his reviews of The Diamond Pin and The Daughter of the House.)
I’ve had Wells on my list of writers to investigate for years. Back when I was writing my thesis, I spent a month or two making love to the University of Sydney’s detective fiction holdings.
(A sample list of treasures: Several signed R. Austin Freemans, and his sketch of “The Puzzle Lock”; Malice Aforethought signed by Francis Iles; She Died a Lady signed by John Dickson Carr; and Ellery Queen’s copy of The Eye of Osiris.)
They had most of Carolyn Wells’ books: handsome Edwardian books with illustrated frontispieces and art deco jackets. Critics like Will Cuppy and Isaac Anderson repeatedly praised her books. (Dashiell Hammett, of course, didn’t.)
What, then, do we make of The Clue?
It’s not bad. It’s not a classic, by any means, or even particularly good, but for much of its length, it’s a solid, straightforward, rather conventional detective story. Think of it as a more modern, livelier A.K. Green.
Beautiful young heiress Madeleine Van Norman is stabbed with a dagger (Venetian, natch) on the even of her wedding – apparently suicide.
The local doctor thinks otherwise, and so does Rob Fessenden, the best man and lawyer.
He sets out to clear the bridegroom, Schuyler Carleton, who was in love with another woman.
Along the way, Fessenden himself falls in love with a nice thing.
There are some good deductions from lead pencils and handwriting (even if we’re not given the clues to make those deductions ourselves).
What did Miss Morton burn in the fireplace? What did young Tom Willard pick up from the carpet? What did Carleton Schuyler do in the missing quarter-hour? And what is the secretary’s secret?
It breezes along quite nicely, only to plummet at the end.
Fleming Stone, Wells’ series sleuth, appears in the second-last chapter, and makes short work of the mystery.
The reader may guess the killer (I certainly did), but isn’t given any clues. (Ironic, given the title.)
Stone’s evidence is either found in the last chapter, when he’s intuited whodunnit; or depends on technical knowledge.
Fair play has a long way to go in 1909!