Erskine Muir was a British academic who embarked on a writing career
following the death of her husband, Thomas Muir, who died in 1932 of
cancer and left her with two young children to support in the depths
of the Great Depression – which is how she returned to academia.
Muir supplemented her income by writing historical biographies and
penned three detective novels under the name "D. Erskine Muir."
While three novels is a modest contribution to the genre, Muir's
detective fiction distinguishes itself by having "a
true crime as the basis for the fiction plots" and "spinning original solutions to unsolved mysteries."
Five to Five is Muir's second, true-crime-inspired detective novel and has a plot drawing on the unsolved Glasgow murder in the 83-year-old spinster, Miss Marion Gilchrist. The murder became known as the Oscar Slater Case for the man upon whom the police "proceeded crudely to pin the crime." Curt Evans noted in his introduction that while a lot has been written on the Slater Case, they "mostly devoted themselves to pointing out the manifold structural weaknesses in the shaky scaffolding which the state had erected in support of Slater's shameful conviction." Muir pieced together and presented an altogether different solution to the problem. More importantly, Muir reportedly constructed her mysteries with "all the sober rigour of Freeman Wills Crofts" with a series-character, Detective Inspector Woods, "whom Crofts' own Inspector French doubtlessly would have been honoured to serve." So why not?
I should mention Five to Five is not a one-on-one recreation of the Slater Case combined with the author's solution. Rather, it takes the circumstances in which Miss Gilchrist was murdered and employ them as a framework for a similar, but completely fictitious, murder case. So the story takes some artistic liberties with the cast of characters ("all the above characters are fictitious and have no reference to any living person or persons") and naturally how the story plays out. A obvious difference between the Gilchrist murder and Five to Five is Oscar Slater has no analog in the story at all, but then again, Woods is not the type of policeman who would ignore or temper with evidence – clinging "tenaciously, like a pug on a trouser leg, to the belief that Slater was their man." Five to Five and Woods are Golden Age detectives with standards.
So instead of the murder and robbery of an octogenarian spinster in Glasgow, Scotland, the victim in Five to Five is the infirm Simon Ewing. An elderly, comparatively wealthy widower and "something of a tyrant" who collects jade and has a veritable heap of jewelry in the house ("it's just asking for trouble, and tempting people to come in"). Simon Ewing has an all-round reputation for being an "selfish, self-indulgent old man" and keeps everyone around him on a short leash. There's his struggling nephew and last remaining relative, George Fordham, whose wife Penelope, "a woman who was not finding life easy," tried to plead with him to help them out financially right before the murder. Ewing also frowns on Nurse Edwards having her time outs to get a breath of fresh air.
That's how things stand on the afternoon of the murder. At the time, Ewing's downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Dutton, is having tea with her niece and nephew, Anne and Henry Godfrey, and Doreen Godfrey. Henry's wife. During their little family tea party, they hear a muffled thud above their heads and moments later the front door bell rings. Nurse Edwards is standing there with a bruised, plastered face and one arm in a sling. She had been knocked down by a cyclist and had to go to the hospital to get patched up, which is why she was gone for so long. But when she returned to the flat, Ewing refused to answer or open the door. And she couldn't turn the stiff door key with her left hand. Henry goes up with Nurse Edwards and they meet a man, hat pulled down and collar turned up, going down the stairs from the top of the house – casually nodding goodnight as he went down and out to the street. Upstairs, Henry and Nurse Edwards discover the brutally battered remains of Simon Ewing lying in front of the hearth.
Just as promised, Detective Inspector Woods arrives on the scene to take charge of the investigation and lives up to his reputation "based upon the extreme thoroughness and tenacity with which he would scrutinize every detail of a crime." Scrutinizing he does!
Woods goes over the scene of the crime numerous times, interviewing everyone who was near the scene numerous times and drawing up timetables that get "checked again and again." This sounds like a laborious, plodding "humdrum" detective story and Five to Five unquestionable has a familial resemblance to the straightforward detective fiction of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, but it didn't read like one at all. Five to Five is not a lengthy mystery novel with relatively short chapters. So it never has an opportunity to became truly laborious and plodding as Woods uncovers bits and pieces of the truth. Logic and simple police routine. Since the story has a small cast of characters mostly confined to Clevedon Street, the story often read like a fleshed out stage play. Where the story bears an unmistakable resemblance to the detective fiction of Crofts and Rhode is that murderer, or murderers, identity is easily spotted with all the ingenuity going towards the method of the crime. There are definitely some clever touches to the circumstances in which the murder was committed.
A detail baffling Woods is "a man kneeling, or leaning over the body, must have been quite deeply stained with the spurting blood," but nobody concerned in the case had been stained with blood or had the time to remove it. Muir came up with a good, credible answer to the problem involving the missing murder weapon and Woods rightly called (SPOILER/ROT13) gur zheqreref oyraqvat vqragvsvrf gb pbashfr gur genvy "the real cleverness of the plot." Something worthy of Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn.
So, on a whole, Five to Five is a thoroughly solid, cleverly constructed detective novel in the tradition of Crofts and Rhode, but what makes the book standout is how it applied the skill of the mystery novelist to a cruel, sordid real-life-inspired crime and not going for the obvious take. It would been tempting to work the angle of an innocent man accused or turn it into a full-blown courtroom drama. Muir decided to show what could have happened if a competent and careful policeman had investigated the murder of Miss Gilchrist. I agree with Curt Evans "the author has come up with a far more credible solution than the Scottish authorities ever managed to do during their infamous investigation." If you're not allergic to Crofts and Rhode (you have been warned, Kate), Five to Five comes highly recommended and will be looking into her other true crime mysteries.