Magnay, Sir William. The Hunt Ball Mystery.

NY: Brentano’s, 1918.

Magnay, a baronet, was a popular and prolific novelist from the 1880s through World War I but almost no one has heard of him today. His prose couldn’t be called scintillating, nor his plots ingenious, but both were workmanlike and his books were very readable. This classic locked-room mystery was (I think) his last and was published posthumously the year after his death. And while it’s not a bad story, it’s probably best approached as an artifact of early 20th-century social history.

Lawyer Hugh Gifford and Capt. Harry Kelson, recently returned to civilian society, have traveled down from London by train to attend a local seasonal ball, but part of Gifford’s luggage didn’t make it and he has to wait awhile for his evening dress to catch up with him. But he’s originally from there — the ball, in fact, is being held at the country home where he himself grew up, before his family was forced by economic circumstances to sell the place — so he spends a few hours strolling around the village and reminiscing. And when he finally makes it to the ball himself, it’s clear to the reader that he has experienced something during that short time that has shaken him.

The house incorporates a 15th-century tower, and on the top floor a door is found to be locked from the inside — and when they finally get the door open, a body is discovered stabbed to death. The victim is Clement Henshaw, a thoroughly disreputable character and not (in nearly everyone else’s opinion) a gentleman. In fact, the author — via most of the characters in the story — spends a good deal of time discussing what attributes and behavior make a “gentleman.” It will sound rather labored to our far more egalitarian society, but the distinctions mattered a great deal to them. Or at least to a certain segment of the British population at that time.

The police, of course, aren’t much use, except to insist that it can only have been suicide. But when the dead man’s brother, another attorney and a forensics specialist, shows up and insists otherwise, it seems it will fall to Gifford to figure out what really happened. Only that isn’t quite what the author has in mind, either. And the “mystery” will take one in quite a different direction. As I say, the interest for the modern reader is more likely to be anthropological than literary, but it’s an interesting read.

Published in: on 30 March 2017 at 7:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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