"And keep your eye on that fisherman. Don't let him do any thing funny."- Conan Edogawa (Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed a.k.a. Detective Conan, vol. 45)
Nearly two years ago, I read Harriet Rutland's splendid (and splashy) Bleeding Hooks (1940), which had been reprinted at the time by Dean Street Press and their new edition is introduced by our resident genre-historian and scholar, Curt Evans, who listed additional titles in his preface of detective novels with a fly fishing background – including John Haslette Vahey's Death by the Gaff (1932).
Secondhand copies of the Vahey title tend to be on the scarce side, but recently came across an inexpensive reprint edition in the catalog of Black Heath Edition and remembered Evans had mentioned it in his introduction to Bleeding Hooks. So I immediately reeled in a copy of the book.
This new edition of Death by the Gaff has been reissued under Vahey's most well-known pseudonym, "Vernon Loder," which is a name you might recognize from the recent Detective Club reprint of The Mystery at Stowe (1928). A pleasantly written, old-fashioned detective story about African blowpipes and poison-smeared thorns, but the plot was hardly innovative. Fortunately, the same can't be said about his fly fishing-themed mystery novel, which definitely had a touch of originality, inventiveness and some of the splendor of the 1930s, Golden Age detective story.
Death by the Gaff takes place in Cwyll, North Wales, where the Horn Hotel caters to ardent anglers, professional and amateur alike, but recently a particular unpleasant specimen of the fisherman had taken up residence at the hotel, Solomon Hayes – an "elderly Don Juan of an offensive sort." Hayes acted as "a perfect pig." A man who treated his fellow anglers as poachers and came close to trading blows with a local fisherman, Peter Hoad, who had accidentally taken one of his nets and was "practically stigmatised as a thief." Hayes also made two enemies at the hotel, Edward Bow and Robert Chance.
The latter of those two actually had a tussle with Hayes when tried to dissuade Chance from fishing in the same pool as he was trying his luck in, which is a discussion that ended with "a not too heavy uppercut." Hayes immediately consulted a lawyer and visited the local police station to press charges against Chance.
So pretty much everyone had enough of Hayes and a round-robin petition was signed, which demanded his removal from the hotel. On top of that, Caroline Hayes turns up one evening in response to an anonymous letter she received suggesting that her husband had been fooling around with a local girl. However, by the time she arrived, Hayes had gone missing. And he would not be found until the following day.
Hayes' body is spotted in the water of a natural pool, trapped beneath a jutting rock, just above the lip of a waterfall, but when the body is retrieved from the pool they find "a round, raw wound" in the left side of the throat – suggesting a blow from a steel gaff-hook. A gaff is a big steel hook on a stick and is used to land a salmon. Coincidentally, there was a lost gaff at the time Hayes went missing and the search for this potential murder weapon is what drives a large portion of the investigation, which is done by both a police inspector and two self-appointed amateur snoops.
Inspector Parfitt is the policeman in charge of the official end of the investigation, but a good portion of the relevant detective work is done by two friends, Harry Wint and Joan Powis, who find traces of blood on one of the wooden sleepers (railway tie) in one of the train tunnels – which are used as a short cuts by the local fishermen and employed by Hayes, and his girl, as a secret rendezvous spot. I found that rather odd, because you would think the hillsides of Wales has better places to offer than a dark, soot-covered train tunnel for the purpose of clandestine, night-time meetings. But hey, that's just me.
Interestingly, Wint and Powis come to regret their involvement and even attempt to walk back on the evidence they uncovered, which they do on account of the person who got arrested and committed for trial at the assizes. Wint and Powis concoct a theory that would explain Hayes' death as an unfortunate accident. Surprisingly, their theory seemed to hold water when a diver found a gaff at the bottom of a pool.
On a historical side-note, the scenes with the old-time, hard-hat diver, complete with a bell-helmet and surface air-pump, were fascinating to read and not a "character" often encountered in vintage detective stories. I'm only aware of two detective stories in which a hard-hat diver plays a role or makes an appearance: Max Murray's The Neat Little Corpse (1950-51) and Joseph Commings' 1953 short story "Bones for Davy Jones" (collected in The Locked Room Reader, 1968). So I thought that was interesting.
Nevertheless, Inspector Parfitt, who's "a methodical and conscientious man," gets to redeem himself and carries out a careful, time consuming experiment behind that scenes that involves a zinc bathtub in his attic and gallons of water from the river Cwyll – an experiment that got results which "filled his mind with triumph." This patient, time-consuming, but scientific, approach to the problem and the various experiments (one of them involving a wax dummy) makes this book closely related to the work of R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts and even John Rhode. Only problem is that Vahey decided to take the humdrum route once the finish-line of the story came in sight.
|A vintage 1930s gaff|
Death by the Gaff is full of local color and beautiful descriptions of the Welsh countryside, rivers, whirlpools and waterfalls with a pleasant concoction of professional police work and amateur detection, but the revelation of the truth felt like a dud. As if all the energy had gone out of the plot. The murderer's identity is logical enough (a bit obvious perhaps) and the motive of this person was signaled early on in the story, but the solution simply felt underwhelming and somewhat uninspired.
Even the murderer almost completely deflated when the inevitable knock on the door came and only made a halfhearted attempt at committing suicide, which was easily deflected by the inspector. After that, the murderer merely expressed his wish to be hanged as soon as possible.
Once again, the solution makes sense and is competent enough, but the ending lacked the energy that was present in the preceding chapters of, what was until then, a very good sporting mystery. So this is really a story in need of a better ending and burdened with an anticlimactic ending. However, I'm probably selling the book short here by nitpicking the ending, because, on a whole, this was a really good read. It's just that the ending was not as impressive as the rest of the story. I really wish my enthusiasm had sustained itself into the final chapter and would not have to end this review with a splash of cold water, but that's what I got out of the story.
So there you have it. Another hacky review I botched with my nitpickery. Oh, well, I'll try to do better with the next one.
Finally, I mentioned in the opening of this blog-post a short list of mysteries with a fly fishing background and three of those titles are currently residing on my TBR-pile, which are Cyril Hare's Death is No Sportsman (1938) Josephine Tey's The Singing Sands (1951) and Ngiao Marsh's Scales of Justice (1955). A fourth title, Double Cross Purposes (1937) by Ronald A. Knox, is available as an ebook. That leaves only Nigel Orde-Powlett's The Cast of Death (1932) as one of those pesky, hard-to-get and out-of-print titles, but I can easily the knock the others of my list and I'm kind of tempted to do so. But we'll see. So stay tuned!