The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)
Author: Possibly the most interesting mystery connected with this novel is the identity of A. Fielding, sometimes A. E. Fielding. Many sources give the A. as standing for Archibald, but there is also a body of opinion that suggests that Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Moore, nee Feilding (note the spelling difference), is responsible. This material would seem to suggest that Lady Dorothie cannot be the author — her grandson agrees that it’s not possible (see the comments section of the previous post linked in the first paragraph). Eminent mystery critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggests here, not entirely seriously I think, that since Lady Dorothie and Agatha Christie lived in the same street at the same time, Dame Agatha may have published under this pseudonym. I think it’s possible we’ll never know; your guess is as good as mine. Curtis Evans sums up the available evidence well and his article is worth your time if you’re interested.
Publication Data: This novel is in the public domain, at least for this Canadian, and I found a digital facsimile copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library, here. The cover page, which I have reproduced for your visual interest since so few editions are available to show you, tells me that A. L. Burt published this book by arrangement with H. C. Kinsey & Co., another American publisher. No copies are available for sale that I could find on the Internet, at least of any edition prior to 2014. Below you will find a copy of the cover for a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace under an imprint of “Resurrected Press”.
About this book:
Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.
As is so often the case, the romantic involvements of a beautiful young woman drive this mystery. Miss Winnie Pratt, who today would be called a debutante, is being introduced to society under the guardianship of her mother, Mrs. Pratt. Winnie is an extraordinary beauty and has attracted the attention of many eligible bachelors. When she expresses a desire to stay “in town” in “a really old house with genuine period furnishings”, one young man finds a way to make that happen. A young solicitor, Moy, has a client who has such a furnished house for rent for a short period. The house is in Chelsea and is spoken of as having housed Angelica Kauffman and with a ceiling possibly painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which would make it approximately from the period 1760 to 1780. Apparently there are enough bedrooms on a single floor to house the party, so that the troupe of servants hired as a group from a vacationing householder will not be unduly stressed. Moy has plans for himself and four other young men to rent Tall House each for a week and host Mrs. and Miss Pratt as their guests. The five renters include Moy, the very wealthy Mr. Haliburton, the silent and vaguely creepy Mr. Tark, mathematician and scientific writer Charles Ingram (whose half-brother Freddie is involved, but not as a renter), and Charles’s university roommate Gilmour, a civil servant. Charles and Haliburton are the principal suitors for Miss Pratt’s affections and the others are involved out of what might be politeness, or a sense of fun. Ingram is a well-known writer and expert on, among other things, codes and cyphers; Haliburton is enormously wealthy, and either will be a good match for the lovely Winnie.
When the party begins, Mrs. Pratt soon reveals that her preference is for her daughter to marry Haliburton and his money, rather than Ingram and his brains, and she asks Gilmour to stop encouraging Ingram’s pursuit of Winnie. Gilmour tells her that he himself has fallen in with the house rental in order to have a place to bring his own intended bride, Alfreda Longstaff, under the chaperonage of Mrs. Pratt; he hasn’t known Alfreda well or for long, but he tells Mrs. Pratt of his hope to marry her. Mrs. Pratt agrees to chaperone Miss Longstaff and gives Gilmour the impression that she is determined that Winnie’s marriage shall bring Haliburton’s money to Winnie, apparently because it is badly needed. Meanwhile, Ingram is working away furiously but secretively on his latest manuscript, some sort of mathematical or code-related treatise.
As we meet Alfreda Longstaff, she reveals herself to be quite a different character than the beautiful but somewhat dim Winnie. Alfreda feels she is wasting away in her rural surroundings and longs to have a career of some sort. She’s also rather more displeased with the attentions of Gilmour than this gentleman knows. Apparently he came to rural Bispham and attracted her attentions for a month, then vanished without word. When he reappears abruptly some time later and announces his intention to marry her, she appears to agree — anything to escape Bispham! — but her internal monologue tells us that she is galled at having been ignored for so long and doesn’t really love Gilmour. Instead, since she has recently met a London journalist on the golf course, she wants to somehow find a “scoop” and thereby wangle a newspaper job. She tells Gilmour that she’ll stay with him at Tall House but promises nothing except to come to town for a fortnight.
Gilmour tells his fellow members of the rental syndicate about his affection for Alfreda and that he expects to marry her; Gilmour is apparently not picking up on the firm line of Alfreda’s mouth and the subtext that is clear to the reader, and we expect a future disappointment for Gilmour. Ingram’s half-brother Frederick is revealed to be short of money and is coming around to touch Charles for a fiver (and has done so on frequent occasions); Ingram also supports his brother-in-law Appleton, a former actor, in minor ways.
The house party’s mood is not enlivened by Alfreda’s arrival; indeed, the reader learns that Winnie is actually jealous of Gilmour’s obvious affection for the athletic but relatively unlovely Alfreda, and unaccountably means to encourage Gilmour’s attentions (much to the horror of her mother, since Gilmour has only his civil service salary). Alfreda, meanwhile, is engaged in a mysterious errand that involves her masquerading as a Miss Grey at a boarding house in Hammersmith and scraping acquaintance with a large middle-aged lady named Mrs. Findlay by pretending to be interested in Mrs. Findlay’s passion for disarmament. Mrs. Findlay is dubious, thinking that perhaps Alfreda is interested in a sum of money into which Mrs. Findlay has recently come, and asks the landlady to cooperate in helping her to avoid Alfreda.
A week after the arrival of Alfreda, the house party begins to discuss ghosts one night and it is revealed that Tall House, like many such antique homes, is said to be haunted, although by whom and for what reason is not mentioned. Gilmour reveals that if he sees a ghost he is likely to shoot at it since he had an unfortunate childhood experience with someone dressing up as a ghost, and ever since has been infuriated by ghost-related pranks. Of course, as the reader by now expects, a shot rings out in the middle of the night. Gilmour is found with a gun in his hand and dead on the floor nearby, wound in a sheet, is the mathematical Mr. Ingram.
Gilmour immediately reveals that he thought his pistol was loaded with blanks, before the arrival of Inspector Pointer. Alfreda also tells Gilmour that she cannot now marry him, much to his surprise, and she immediately races to a telephone to phone in the scoop to her newspaper friend. Now, at this point, I’ll be much less specific about plot developments; I think it’s likely that you will enjoy reading this book and I don’t want to spoil its surprises for you. I will say, though, that experienced mystery readers will immediately discount Gilmour as having been set up by a clever murderer; the fact that the bullet hole in the sheet around the deceased Ingram is in a very odd orientation will add to your suspicions. Added to which, it seems as though everyone in the house is searching for some mysterious slips of paper that Ingram had produced in his work, and we haven’t been told much about why. Two are found with some mysterious columns of words on them, “VON/OF/DE” and “HELL/LIGHT/CLAIRE”. Another slip appears to be a shred of cheap wallpaper. But the search for more slips of paper continues, even after all the secret compartments sewn into Ingram’s clothing are found empty. The value of various of the slips of paper becomes apparent two-thirds of the way through the book; it’s not exactly a red herring, but it won’t take you to the solution. Only a very, VERY careful reading of what people say to each other, and whether it is attested to or confirmed by others, will do that.
The clues take the clever Inspector Pointer to various London locations and eventually to a casino on the continent, but it is a small out-of-the-way cottage that reveals another corpse and an exciting finish, where Pointer must knock out a disguised murderer before a third life is lost.
I’ll be honest and say that my expectations of this volume were not high. Although I hadn’t read a Fielding mystery before, I’d been told that they were from the Humdrum school so well represented by its foremost practitioner, Freeman Wills Croft. I rather felt that, had Freeman’s novels been truly superior examples of the kind of thing that Crofts did so well (an investigation by a police officer doggedly tracking down the clues to a surprise ending), they would have survived and been more enthusiastically reprinted. An eminent critic and the world’s expert on Humdrum mysteries, Curtis Evans, reviewed two Fielding mysteries earlier this year and gave them only faint praise (his reviews are here and here and his speculations about Fielding’s identity are linked in the first paragraph of this post), as does another recent review found here of this specific volume.
But as I progressed through the pages, I found myself quite charmed by the writing. I like to read mysteries of this vintage as much for their explication of the social background of their period as for the puzzle, and I found myself interested in both. The puzzle aspects are frequent and enigmatic. When I mentally lined up the slips with the mysterious words, I found that the phrases “Light of” and “Claire de” popped out at me, and this is precisely the sort of deduction that I enjoy making in the course of reading an old mystery. What they meant wasn’t clear to me until much later, but I was looking for connections with the word “moon” furiously for the remainder of the novel. There are similar puzzle aspects, little clues dropped here and there that, at a distance of 75 years, it’s obvious are meant to confuse and mislead. Mysterious slips of paper, secret pockets, Alfreda’s mysterious activities with the perhaps-disguised Mrs. Findlay — these are the puzzle aspects of old mysteries that I find charming and enticing, and there are plenty of them here.
The other part is the social history background, and again there is plenty here. It is difficult for us to realize at this remove that, in 1933, crossword puzzles were such a new phenomenon that newspapers used crossword competitions to boost circulation, and offered prizes of £2,500 at a time when you could live on the proverbial £50 a year that impoverished young women were always seeking to improve in mysteries of the period. This is rather like the potential to win a million dollars by competing on Survivor, and perhaps it’s the re-valuing of the pound that makes it less obvious to today’s reader, but this is very serious business. What would you do to win a competition that yielded 20 or 25 years’ salary? Similarly, the plight of Alfreda, whose parents cannot afford to educate her for a trade and must merely hope that she marries well, is hard to understand but interesting. The quest for financial independence is a theme throughout this book — the victim’s relatives who touch him for a fiver (doesn’t sound like much, but again, look at it in terms of £50 a year), Mrs. Pratt’s desperation for Winnie to marry money, and some of the underlying motives for the murderous actions that I think it’s better that I don’t tell you. Also there’s the underlying situation — five single men who rent an old house and fill it with servants (and give a couple of balls) simply to amuse a beautiful woman whom a couple of them hope to marry? That’s not the way we do things in the 21st century, and I rather doubt it’s the way most people did things in the 1930s. But it’s quirky and intriguing and a good story hook, and I enjoyed the clever mind that thought of it.
Other commentators have remarked that Fielding is a sloppy writer who will sacrifice a lot of believability for the sake of a tricky and surprising ending. I have to say that although I have noticed sloppy writing in a couple of other Fielding novels that I’ve read recently, courtesy of Hathi Trust, this one didn’t especially annoy me at any particular point. Yes, some of the plot twists are unbelievable, but to me the plot twists were no more difficult to accept than, say, the “Ruritanian romance” plots of E. Phillips Oppenheim or the wild adventures of Edgar Wallace, both from about the same point in time. Fielding wasn’t necessarily trying to be believable, but to amuse, and — I was amused. I was certainly surprised by the ending, and that is not an experience I have often with detective fiction … the identity of the murderer was actually a surprise to me, and I felt instinctively a rather fair one. Perhaps I’m credulous; perhaps I was reading too quickly. Perhaps my ability to suspend my disbelief has grown greater over the years. Perhaps I was fooled by my generally low expectations into thinking that because certain characters were depicted as socially unattractive that the plotting habits of the period would also reveal them to be criminals. But after decades of mystery-reading and thousands and thousands of books, I’m not often fooled, and I was fooled. And I enjoyed it! I’m not saying that this is a puzzle plot with the skill and depth of, say, Anthony Berkeley. Once I realized how I’d been fooled, I went back and looked and found it wasn’t — well, not 100% fair play. You have to be paying very close attention to see how the author works the trick, and it’s a question of a tiny shift of viewpoint that’s very subtle. But I’m someone who has failed to be fooled by everyone from Carolyn Keene to Agatha Christie, and if it takes a little unfair play for me to have the rare and enjoyable experience of being fooled, I’ll concur.
I think you might enjoy this novel if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction; paradoxically, I think you won’t manage to enjoy it as much if you are a newbie, although you’ll definitely be fooled by the ending. It’s not a great mystery, but it has charm and some skill, it’s an interesting period piece and I liked it.
Notes for the Collector:
As I noted above, I cannot locate a copy of this novel available for sale other than a print-on-demand edition from 2014. And, of course, it is available for your reading pleasure on the internet from Hathi Trust. I did a brief search for other Fielding novels from the 1920s and 1930s and found that, as usual, condition and the presence of a jacket will lift these novels from the $15 range to perhaps the $70-$90 range. I must say that the jacketed copies I’ve seen of various Fielding novels seem to me to be aesthetically very pleasant and much above the general range of contemporaneous jackets; really very pretty work with good design and colours that may have faded over time but are still attractive. If you want a reading copy, well, it’s free. If you want a collectible copy, good luck finding one.
2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:
This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “N”, “Read one book with a size in the title.” I am not myself a “Tall” but I’ll claim it as a clothing size almost out of desperation. I have to confess I have been stymied by this category and up until recently was entirely unable to think of a qualifying novel; I am indebted to Linda Bertland, writing at Philly Reader, for having reviewed it before me to fall under the same category in the same challenge. Ordinarily I try to select books for review where I can show you a number of editions, but “Needs must when the devil drives.” My apologies for the lack of visual references.