"The tragedy has been so uncommon, so complete and of such personal importance to so many people, that we are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns."- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894)
Annie Haynes' The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929) is the second of four books about one of her series characters, Detective-Inspector William Stoddart of Scotland Yard, who first appeared on the scene in The Man with the Dark Beard (1928) and bowed out in the posthumously published The Crystal Beads Murder (1930) – which was left behind as a partially-finished manuscript and completed with the assistance of an unknown writer.
The Crime at Tattenham Corner was recommended to me in the comment-section of one of my previous reviews of Haynes' work and was praised, alongside The Abbey Court Murder (1923), as one of her best mystery novels. And I have to concur with this opinion: The Crime at Tattenham Corner proved to be her most rewarding detective story to date.
The plot of the book hangs on the shocking murder of Sir John Burslem, a well-known financier and race-horse owner, who was found dead in Hughlin’s Wood, "face downwards in the stagnant water of a ditch," not far from Tattenham Corner – shot through the lower part of his face. Sir John had been shot and killed on the eve of the highly-anticipated Derby Day, which has immediate consequences for the race and the shoo-in winner of that event.
Sir John was the proud owner of a fine, well-bred race horse, named Peep o' Day, who was "a dead cert for the Derby," but, under Derby rules, the death of an owner "renders void all his horses' nominations and entries." This effectively means that Peep o' Day has been scratched from the Derby.
So was Sir John murdered to influence the outcome of the race? If that's the case, the obvious suspect seems to be his rival, Sir Charles Stanyard, who is called "the sporting baronet" and owns the number two favorite in the race, Perlyon, but there's also a personal connection between the race-horse enthusiasts – as the latter had once been engaged to the wife of the former. As the reader is made aware of, Lady Burslem, or simply Sophie, has something to hide that seems to be directly related to the shooting of her late husband. Something that looks as if it could very incriminating and very, very hard to explain to the police. Sir John also has a daughter from a previous marriage, named Pamela, who naturally wants her father to be avenged, but she has been completely omitted from an impromptu will that was drafted mere hours before the murder. Everything was left to his wife.
This gives rise to the question as to why Sir John felt compelled to hurriedly draw up a new will and why he completely left out his daughter, brother and sister-in-law, but that's not the only complication occupying the police's attention.
The valet and personal gentleman of the victim, Robert Ellerby, vanished without a trace and there's a spiritual element hovering in the background. Sir John's sister-in-law, Mrs. Kitty Burslem, is a huge proponent of séances and believes she has received messages from Sir John – which makes some wonder why he, who detested the woman in life, would communicate with her after death. But several people seem to be convinced she receives messages from the Great Beyond and some of them relate directly to potential investments.
Well, Detective-Inspector William Stoddart of Scotland Yard and his able-handed assistant, Sergeant Alfred Harbord, set out "to trace every clue" that may help "to elucidate the mystery of Sir John Burslem's death," which they accomplish with routine police work and some of the unorthodox tricks of a good looking, single amateur dilettante – i.e. using their male charm on some of women in the case. Not what you'd expect from a proper police-inspector.
But they, slowly but surely, stumble to the same conclusion as most of the seasoned mystery readers and my initial response was, "oh, this old gag again," but Haynes managed to wrangle an alternative explanation out of that moldy, time-worn trick. And not a bad one either. At the first, the false explanation is convincingly, and sensationally, presented as the correct one, which is very pleasing to the reader who was one step ahead of Stoddart the entire time. But then the court room scenes begin and it becomes very clear that this clever, classically-styled, explanation leaves several questions unanswered. Such very important question as to who rolled the body into the ditch after the shooting, because the person in the dock denies having done this.
So this one managed to pull a nice and logical surprise on the reader, but one that puts two (minor) smudges on the overall quality of the plot: the case is cleared up when a confession from the real criminal reaches the court room and this makes the police (i.e. Stoddart) look very foolish and somewhat incompetent. After all, he nearly delivered an innocent person to the hangman!
However, this may've been done intentionally, because Haynes was, reportedly, as big of a fan of true-crime as she was of horse-racing and this might have been an attempt on her part at giving the story a gleam of realism.