In 2020, Clifford Witting emerged from six decades of obscurity with a reprint of Catt Out of the Bag (1939), courtesy of Galileo Publishers, who have since reissued eight of his sixteen novels and expended their catalog of Golden Age detective fiction – adding Joan Cockin, Joan Coggin and Max Murray to their line-up. I'll get to those three, but first want to go through their Witting reprints.
Let X Be the Murderer (1947) is the seventh title in the Inspector Harry Charlton series, following the superb Subject—Murder (1945), which begins ordinarily enough for a detective story. An early morning call from to Elmsdale, "Sir Victor Warringham's place," to the Lulverton police station to report an attempted murder. Sir Victor claims that during the night a pair luminous hands tried to strangle him, but, when he jumped out the bed to turn on the light, there was "no trace of anything unusual in the room." So asks the police to come down immediately and have "this spook removed from the premises without any of the customary delays."
Inspector Charlton takes Detective-Sergeant Bert Martin to Elmsdale to hear Sir Victor's story. Instead, the two policemen find a very strange and suspicious situation full of contradictions. Lily, the maid, confirms the Sir Victor's call ("the master was nearly murdered in' is bed last night"), but the housekeeper, Mrs. Winters, tells a different story – saying her employer was simply taken ill and is not to be disturbed ("doctor diagnosed heart trouble"). Sir Victor's son-in-law, Clement Harler, takes the confidential approach and explains to Charlton that "the old boy" never was same after his wife and only daughter were killed by a flying-bomb in 1944. So every now and then, Sir Victor gets funny ideas, but assures he's quite harmless and that a specialist is coming down from London to look him over. Clement's second-wife, Gladys, had yet a different yarn to spin. In the end, they're turned away without seeing Sir Victor and it doesn't end there. Sir Victor had also summoned his lawyer, Mr. Howard, but gets told his client is not fit to see him ("he's mad, I tell you!"). Only for Mrs. Winters to intervene and telling the Harlers, "you'll not prevent me from doing everything I can to protect an honourable, trusting old gentleman from a pair of cheap confidence tricksters."
So, as they would say back in the days, the game's afoot. This all proves to be a prelude to murder and someone at the mansion gets strangled in their bed, but the victim is not the supposedly sick or mad Sir Victor. And it's obvious the murder committed by a human. Not a pair of disembodied, glowing hands.
I've seen Let X Be the Murderer being described as a homage to the Victorian-era sensation novel and the premise suggests one of those Golden Age tributes to the period. Brian Flynn's The Triple Bite (1931) and Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Six Queer Things (1937) come to mind. As others have pointed out, Let X Be the Murderer reads like a Victorian sensation novel with its long monologues and soapy transgressions driving the tangled plot and cast of characters, but the resemblance became less, and less, as the pages between the opening and closing chapters grew – as it weaved unexpected patterns into familiar designs. For example, Sir Victor's own account of the midnight attack and why the assailant should have read his book, England's Haunted Houses, is a clever and unexpected touch to the plot and overall story. While it plays on the familiar themes of the Victorian-era novel, I found the story (after a while) to stand closer to one of Francis Vivian's excellent Inspector Knollis novels like The Laughing Dog (1949) or The Singing Masons (1950).
Another comparison I've seen thrown at the book is John Dickson Carr, but the ghostly attack in Sir Victor's bedroom is not an impossible crime or even presented as one. On the contrary! Witting headed in the completely opposite direction when setting up the plot. Now if Carr had written Let X Be the Murderer, the menacing hands would have been the resident ghost terrorizing the family for generations by trying to strangle them in their beds and the murder, two disembodied hands strangling the victim, would have been observed through the keyhole of the locked and bolted bedroom door. That and I can't see Carr handing this particular murderer over the hangman.
So this is not that kind of detective or sensational novel, but an enjoyable and pleasant take on the crime fiction of a bygone era presented as one of those thoroughly competent British detective stories of the Golden Age. Charlton said it best, "the policeman plods steadily along the winding highway of cold fact" unlike "the carefree amateur sleuth" scampering "madly across the green meadows of intuition." So the inspector is not all that impress by a pair of murderous hands, Sir Victor's madness, his scheming relatives or domestic servants with agendas of their own. It cleverly undermined expectations. If there's anything to hold against Let X Be the Murderer, it's the reason why this rambling review is a bit shorter than usual as the plot leaves very little room for discussion. This time, Witting can be called stingy when it comes to clueing. A ton of misdirection and red herrings, but not much to help the reader, or the inspector, to logically piece the whole thing together. Nevertheless, even with a glut of red herrings, I think most readers, just like Charlton, will eventually get "a very shrewd idea" about the who-and why – or at least in which direction a solution can be found. So, purely as a fair play mystery, Let X Be the Murderer is not a patch on the previous Catt Out of the Bag and Subject—Murder, but, comparisons and nitpicking aside, it's a good and thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery. I liked how Witting used the Victorian sensational novel to frame a 1930s-style country house mystery, of sorts, pleasantly diverting the plot from established patterns once the murder is committed. Recommended with some “buts” and nitpicking.
A note for the curious: one of the characters references a story about a boy that "hadn't any relations at all and was Alone in the World." Is this a reference to Hector Malot's Sans familie (Nobody's Boy, 1878) famously known in my country as Alleen op de wereld? For some reason, I always thought the story is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.