First Published: 1877 in the Illustrated London News
My copy: Free download on Kindle
Memorable quote: “Suspect, in this case, the very last person on whom suspicion could possibly fall.’
One of my ongoing goals is to read the complete works of Wilkie Collins. Having long since finished his major novels (No Name and Armadale are my favourites because I have a penchant for ruthless and performative female protagonists) I am now tackling the lesser known novellas – all of which, happily, are freely available online. Collins’ plot here revolves around the theft of a £500 note from a letter waiting to be posted from the wealthy widow Lady Lydiard. Present at the time of the theft are her adopted daughter, Isabel Miller; her nephew, Felix Sweetsir; her steward, Robert Moody; and the gentleman turned horse-breeder, Alfred Hardyman. The weight of suspicion falls on Isabel who is obliged to lie low in the custody of a maiden aunt while efforts are made to solve the mystery and clear her name.
This brief plot summary reads like a fairly typical example of early detective fiction and Collins’ links with this, at the time, emergent, genre are clear. Indeed, one of the novella’s most memorable characters, Old Sharon – a roguish, irreverent man whose advanced capacity for logical deduction seems to have been developed at the expense of any kind of social affability, including basic personal grooming – certainly feels like a forerunner to Sherlock Holmes whose adventures would first appear in print a decade after the publication of this novella. Yet the whodunnit element of Collins’ plot remains rather thin. Despite Old Sharon’s instruction to “suspect…the very last person on whom suspicion could possibly fall” I found that I had guessed the culprit quite quickly and there are few of the surprises and revelations here that make Collins’ longer works so gripping. This is because the line up of suspects is really just an excuse to facilitate this work’s real focus – less on crime fiction than on sparkling social comedy. The quest to restore Isabel’s reputation allows Collins to conjure a number of characters at social, ideological and even romantic loggerheads, throw them together, turn up the heat in the drawing room and let them simmer, with consistently entertaining results!
I particularly enjoyed the clash between beer-drinking high-society Lady Lydiard and Isabel’s Aunt, the prissy, socially aspirant Miss Pink: “the living picture of human obstinacy in its most respectable form.” And let’s not forget the novella’s canine star, Tommie, a spoiled and mischievous Scottish Terrier. Tommie’s is a rather sentimentalised portrait, yes, but – speaking from experience, with two Jack Russells in the family – it is still one that I would imagine most terrier lovers would enjoy. In summary, while this is far from being one of Collins’ best, he does invent some thoroughly enjoyable characters here and the cutting interactions between them go a long way to compensate for both the predictability of the central mystery and the flatness of the romance plot.