In the First Degree (1933) is the fifth and final detective novel by "Roger Scarlett," a shared pseudonym of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, which distinguished itself by disregarding the formula of the previous novels and blotting out all of the secondary characters – like Sergeant Moran and Underwood. Inspector Norton Kane, of the Boston Police, is still present, but has to act in an unofficial capacity and has to conduct his investigation from the shadows. Sometimes quite literally.
But the one thing that has remained the same, as in the previous novels, is that book is, what they call in Japan, a yakata-mono (a mansion story).
This time the dark, gloomy mansion is Boston's historic Loring house, a rare survival of Federal period architecture on Cambridge Street in Bowdoin Square, where a murder is brewing. Inspector Kane ends up there, as a paying lodger, in a rather roundabout way.
Kane is recovering from a "siege of influenza" and has been granted a four week leave of absence to regain his strength, but the opening chapter finds him a state of "infinite boredom" in a Boston hotel room and therefore welcomes the announcement of an unexpected visitor. The name of the visitor is James Faraday, a friend of Aaron Loring, whom he believes is in mortal danger. However, Kane dismisses his visitor as a neurotic man until he opens a package that had arrived before Farraday.
A package that contained a book, Petronius' The Satyricon, which has been bookmarked at "The Tale of the Widow of Ephesus" and in a blank space, in the middle of the page, he read two words, "Help me," written in pencil – inside the front cover was a bookplate bearing the name Aaron Loring. So that piqued the interest of the bored policeman and Kane decides to take a look at the Loring house himself, which is when an unlikely occurrence brings him within the walls of the Loring mansion.
As Kane slinks around the dark house, he sees how, all of a sudden, a sheet of cardboard was put in one of the top-floor windows with the word "Rooms" crudely printed on it.
So the inspector has an excuse to make an inquiry, however, the woman he gets to speak to, Miss Julia Vincent, who's Loring's sister-in-law, knows nothing about them renting rooms and the cardboard is nowhere to be found – which does not prevent him from actually getting the room. Kane, as he surreptitiously listens to conversations in the shadowy nooks, discovers that the people who live there are not very happy. And very lonely. Kane overhears Sara Loring telling her sister, Julia, how they must breakthrough "this dreadful isolation."
Ho-Ling Wong mentioned in his review of the book how the opening chapters have "a unique atmosphere" and are reminiscent "a Gothic thriller novel," which is a good description of how this story begins. You can almost read like a nostalgic homage to the Victorian-era thriller with dark secrets and shifty characters slinking around in the rooms and hallways of a gloomy, moldering mansion. And that all pervading fear that something dreadful is about to happen. This large, sprawling mansion proved to be a perfect backdrop for such a story as the place has an abundance of empty rooms, only occupied by the memories of the past, which has this sense of "beautiful neglect" about it. So the backdrop of the plot is, alongside the L-shaped mansion from Murder Among the Angells (1932), the best in this series of mansion-themed detective novels.
Despite his presence, Kane was unable to prevent the death of Aaron Loring, who died in his bed, which his personal physician, Dr. Greenevb Hewling, determined to have been due to heart failure, but Kane smuggled another doctor into the home – who said Loring had died from an overdose of morphine. A dose that had been administrated with hypodermic syringe. So why did Dr. Hewling claim Loring had simply died of heart failure?
Kane uncovers that Dr. Hewling was having a secret affair with Sara, but also has to figure out who defaced a portrait of Loring, and why, as well as dealing with his servant, Lander, who surprisingly turned out to be main beneficiary of the will. Loring gave his wife nothing more than he was legally obliged to give her!
Honestly, at this point of the story, I began to lose a little bit of hope, because I could not see how the solution could be anything but anti-climatic. Luckily, I turned out to be wrong. Very, very wrong. As the ending was quite surprising!
First of all, the ideas on which the solution stands are not new. I've come across countless variations on this trick over the years, but Scarlett crafted a daring variant on this trick that was fraught with risk and pitfalls for the murderer – eventually resulting in a second attempt at murder. A spur of the moment attempt that surprisingly failed. Usually, such characters don't pull through. And this attempted murder is closely connected to the clue of the mop that was hanging out of a third-story window to dry! Sure, you can argue that the murderer's scheme is completely bunkers and not at all plausible, but I believe Scarlett skillfully handled this tricky, twisted plot and the attempted murder demonstrated the plan had its weak spots. Besides, realism be damned!
As to the clueing, the hints are primarily hidden in the situation within that home, the characters themselves and the actions they take. All of these clues could put the reader on the right track to the murderer. However, I should mention that Kane kept, what he saw in the darkened bedroom, to himself, which should have been shared with the reader. This is not exactly a stumbling block to the solution, but it would have been nice had we gotten the entire picture. And it would have worked perfectly as a red herring.
So, on a whole, In the First Degree is a well-written, excellently plotted detective novel with a classic solution that I would place, along with Cat's Paw (1931), slightly below Murder Among the Angells, but above The Beacon Hill Murders (1930). Only real downside of the book is that it was the last in an altogether too short-lived series, but I suppose the authors had said everything they wanted in this genre. Something that may explain why this last one was a departure from the earlier ones. Thankfully, I still have The Back Bay Murders (1930) on the pile and I'll be saving that one for next month.