At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

Mason - At the Villa Rose.jpg

By A.E.W. Mason

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1910; USA, Scribner, 1910

Mason’s At the Villa Rose appeared in the same year as Chesterton’s monumental Innocence of Father Brown and had as great an effect on the future of the detective story. Indeed, it is – if we except Doyle’s four full-length accounts of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, of which, indeed, only The Valley of Fear (still to come when this was published) is an orthodox detective story of the modern variety – the first proper detective novel. We are presented with the murder of a rich, elderly and rather foolish old woman, with suspicion falling on her companion, who vanished in a motor-car. Inspector Hanaud of the Surêté, helped by the middle aged dilettante Mr. Ricardo (no doubt a relation of Christie’s Mr. Satterthwaite), sorts through a number of clues, both physical (footprints, tears in the sofa cushions and ominous stains) and psychological (the relations between the principals in the case) and arrests the culprits, the identity of one of whom at least I never considered for an instant. The novel does not end there, however, for the capture of the villains comes only halfway through. In the manner of the times, we are treated to several chapters describing the case, but far more successful than Doyle, for they are not lengthy flashbacks into the past of another country, but the events of the night in question as told by the companion and one of the criminals, with a genuine frisson of evil in the pages leading up to the murder of Mme. Dauvray. An early classic of the genre, which Mason would surpass with The House of the Arrow.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, 22nd September 1910):

There has been of late a great revival in the vogue of the detective story, but when we find Mr. A.E.W. Mason producing a novel of this kind we are conscious of a certain incongruity.  It is a risk, an experiment; but At the Villa Rose is a fair success.  Every detective story is a kind of drawing-room game of “Spot the Murderer”.  If the reader finds at the end of the book that he has “spotted” the guilty man or woman, then he feels pleased at his own ingenuity, while if he has “spotted” the wrong person, he admires the ingenuity of the author in baffling him.  But it is essential that the author should keep the unwritten rules of the game, and the most important of these rules is that the real murderer must be properly shown during the development of the mystery, so that the reader may have a fair chance of detecting him.  It is irritating if at the end of the book one finds the crime brought home to some subordinate character who has hardly appeared at all beforehand.  Needless to say, Mr. Mason is too good a craftsman to make such a blunder.  We are introduced to the actual murderer quite early in the book; but this present reviewer must confess that, in spite of a considerable experience of the game, he lost, and was left, when the revelation came, admiring Mr. Mason’s ingenuity and deploring his own blindness.  Mr. Mason, on whom a large portion of Mr. Seton Merriman’s mantle has fallen, is extraordinarily ingenious in fitting characters and incidents into a preconceived framework, as he showed particularly in The Four Feathers.  The Villa Rose is at Aix-les-Bains, and its tenant, a kindly, vain old French widow, with a passion for spiritualistic séances, is found brutally murdered, evidently for the sake of her valuable collection of jewels.  Suspicion naturally falls on a lovely young English girl, Celia, whom Mme. Dauvray had picked up not long before in a Montmartre restaurant and made her intimate companion.  More than this it would not be fair to tell, save that there is another most thrilling murder—that of a woman mysteriously stabbed while driving in a cab the short distance from Aix station to the Hotel Majestic.  The character-drawing is, as one would expect from Mr. Mason, better than that of the ordinary detective story.