Sgt. Scott: "Is the body count always this high around here?"DCI Barnaby: "It's been remarked upon."
Well, how do you open a review when you have literarily nothing to set it up with? The book under review today, Peter Hunt's Murders at Scandal House (1933), was randomly selected from my mountainous pile of unread detective stories by slingshotting rocks at its top, and whatever toppled down from its lofty heights would be my next read. What? It's an absolutely flawless method, but, admittedly, left me this time with a tiny problem: Peter Hunt is so obscure that he doesn't even have a page on the GADwiki – which is a who's who of who the hell are these guys? So I have decided not to bother with a cutesy introduction and dig right in.
Murders at Scandal House starts off with Alan Miller, Chief of Police of Totten Ferry, who's on holiday in Adirondacks, when a local game warden drags him along to a swamp island – above which buzzards soar suspiciously. They expect to stumble upon animal carcasses, left behind by poachers, but are instead confronted with the body of a naked man, tied to a tree, who's been eaten alive by a swarm of mosquitoes – and a track of mysterious, elephantine paw prints are leading away from the body into the drassy swamp. Here's where the problems with the story begin to manifest themselves. The author evidently understood that a detective story needs good, intriguing and puzzling plot threads, but seems to have been clueless as to how to follow up on them. He actually explains the otherworldly paw prints a few pages later by ascribing them to the murderer walking on swamp shoes, and gives a similar, premature and mundane explanation to the origin of a ghostly prowler!
In fact, it's almost as if this book was written by someone who suffered from dual personality: with one individual being a reasonable gifted writer, equipped with enough imagination to churn out a half decent mystery, and the other a second-rate hack who couldn't plot his way through a lunch appointment. This dualistic personality also strongly reflects in the fluctuating quality of the chapters. Some of them were very readable, interesting even, while others were dull at best – and tempted me to skim through them to the next one.
But let us return to the story, and the victim who has now been identified as the private chauffeur of the Burrell clan, who are local royalty around those parts, with the elderly and opinionated Lydia Whyte-Burrell as their matriarch – reigning over her relatives with a firm, but generous, hand. And like nearly all families, particular ones with a long pedigree like theirs, they have embarrassing secrets that are best forgotten or ignored – but the murder coincides with the bursting of their overstuffed closets and all of the family skeletons come pouring out to parade their past sins in front of them. From illegitimate children to an unresolved death, which, in turn, leads to the creation of new skeletons and will leave a trail of half a dozen or so fresh bodies.
In general, I'm afraid that this is not a very good detective story at all. There are some good and even absorbing excepts to be found between the covers of this book, but they're hardly enough to elevate the story even slightly below an average attempt – which is also partly due to the fact that Hunt neglected to emulate his murderer who spend a lot of time and effort in putting out a trail of red herrings. If only Hunt had been as liberal with sowing actual clues this could've been a passable endeavor by a second-stringer. The motive, however, has one interesting feature, but, again, nothing to make up for the annoying fluctuation in quality of the chapters and the lack of actual clues or a stunning conclusion. This one is for collectors of Dell Mapback editions only!
This has been a rather depressing review, but the next detective story on my list promises to be gem and coincidently seems to continue the theme of this book: skeletons in the closets. Oh, and it has a locked room mystery!