The Mystery of Treefall Manor (2023) by J.S. Savage

Recently, I reviewed two novels from the current crop of locked room revivalists, Gigi Pandian's Under Lock & Skeleton Key (2022) and J.L. Blackhurst's Three Card Murder (2023), which both made me realize I should have waited with "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century" until 2025 – things began to take a more definite shape right after it was posted. Under Lock & Skeleton Key and Three Card Murder also continued the tradition of having a very mixed reactions to this new generation of locked room magicians. I either love them on first sight or leave me hoping the series improves in future installments, which in case of the latter tends to produce not the most enthusiastic reviews. And those are not among the popular reviews on this blog.

So let me put those at ease who saw the title of this blog-post and feared another one of my lukewarm "hot takes," because today's subject is the genuine article!

J.S. Savage is a London-based mystery writer "who specializes in impossible crimes" and launched historical Inspector Graves series last year with The Mystery of Treefall Manor (2023). For someone who has been prophesying a second Golden Age for years now, I feel not entirely up-to-date of what's currently being produced towards that end. Savage and The Mystery of Treefall Manor are among the many authors and novels slipping pass me unnoticed. Fortunately, the GP of the mystery sphere, Steve the Puzzle Doctor, remedied that oversight with an enticing review ("this is an outstanding book") and making it a contender for his "Grand Puzzly" award in "Review of the Year – 2023." I also added Dolores Gordon-Smith's The Chapel in the Woods (2021) and Victoria Dowd's Murder Most Cold (2023) on the strength of Doc's reviews. After all, D.L. Marshall's Anthrax Island (2021) was a real winner! So lets dissect this newest arrival to the locked room revival.

The Mystery of Treefall Manor takes place in October, 1926, at the titular manor of the widowed Alexander Grimbourne in Swinbridge, Rockinghamshire, which is soon to hosting the wedding party of daughter, Ruth – who's going to be married to their young neighbor, Lord Frederick "Freddie" Taylor. A joyous occasion, to be sure, but not all is well at Treefall Manor. Alexander Grimbourne is the typical, storybook patriarch who's "quite the historian when it comes to the family roots" and their achievements ("my ancestors supplied the wood that was used to build the ships that saw off the Spanish Armada"). However, "the Grimbourne heritage is not made of wood as some people think," but "the Grimbourne men themselves, the men who cut the deals, undercut the competition, it is the name Grimbourne itself." So it was a disappointment to Grimbourne when his only son, John, was born with a withered leg and developed a love for "writing dreary, awful poetry." And their relation was never good. While he loves his daughter, Grimbourne believes she doesn't know what's best for her.

Is this why her engagement to Lord Freddie came out of nowhere or why the wedding is so hastily rushed through? Or why Grimbourne took it upon himself to invite two old friends of the bride and groom? What's on going between him and his private secretary, George Campbell? And who took the antique dagger from the library? This culminated with Grimbourne casually announcing he's going to change his will the next day with predictable results.

Alexander Grimbourne is found murdered in his study, "from his chest protruded the handle of the missing dagger," clutching a dying message plucked from the bookcase, but the door and barred windows are securely locked from the inside – confronting the local police with an impossible crime. So they immediately dispatch their top guy, Detective Inspector Graves, to the scene of the crime together with a recent addition to their ranks, Detective Constable James Carver. A young, eager and promising policeman who's still somewhat rough around the edges.

So, as you can probably gather by now, Savage hits on some of the most familiar notes and themes of the Golden Age detective story, but appearing like a Golden Age-style mystery is not always a guarantee it works like one. Often lacking good plots, fair play or simply not getting the difference between a "closed circle" and "locked room" mystery. I think we have all burned ourselves, once or twice, on such cases of false advertisements, but, as said before, Savage and The Mystery of Treefall Manor is the genuine article. A tight, cleverly-plotted and fairly clued locked room mystery that pleasantly kept me puzzling along with Graves and Carter. And, for the most part, the story felt as if it could have been published nearly a century ago. However, Savage is not merely a Han van Meegeren of detective fiction who created a nigh perfect copy of a Golden Age mystery. Savage used the same techniques as the masters from the past, but went to work fresh, new paints of his own.

Firstly, The Mystery of Treefall Manor takes place in the 1926, but is plotted like a locked room mystery from 1936. A trope of the pre-1930s detective story is that the crime scene often resembled a busy, crowded thoroughfare – littered with monogrammed handkerchiefs, cigarette buds and train tickets. Just to muddy the waters by casting suspicion on as many of the characters as possible. Graves and Carver find some litter in the locked study, but they're not red herrings. They're full-fledged clues! The detective story in 1926 was not quite there yet. Secondly, Savage avoided a pitfall some of these debuting retro-GAD novels fall into by trying to setup the whole series and fleshing out the characters in the first novel, which always comes at the expense of the plot (e.g. Pandian's Under Lock & Skeleton Key). Savage gave more depth to his two series-characters than most of their past counterparts got in their entire run, but it was done with a very light, subtle touch as Graves and Carver got to know each other a little bit over the course of their first joined-investigation. I particularly liked why Graves never acknowledges a particular question or keeping the solution to the locked room to himself to give Carver an opportunity to cut his teeth on a really tricky problem ("this looks to be a meaty sort of case to get his teeth stick in to").

I'm left with practically nothing to complain or nitpick about except for two, very minor details. Carver eventually figures out how the locked room-trick was done, which is a good and absolutely solvable, Graves asks him to name the murderer. Because "only one person could have committed the crime in that way." Aside from opportunity, the method fitted another character even better than the actual murderer and combined with the implied content of the love letter I entertained another possibility for the solution. Funnily enough, as the ending showed, even that wrong solution was not all that far off the mark. And that ending also showed a modern hand was at work. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it broke the illusion a little. If you're going to do it, you should do it right at the end.

So, nitpicking aside, Savage and The Mystery of Treefall Manor is indeed an outstanding detective novel with a plot and characters shining as bright as its Golden Age ancestors. More importantly, it's a welcome and promising addition to the rapidly growing list of locked room revivalists and retro-GAD authors. I'm eagerly looking forward to the second Graves and Carver locked room mystery, Sun, Sea and Murder (2024), which going by the title should be out around summertime.


  1. Always nice to see a glowing review of neo-Golden Age work! I'll have to pick this up soon. By the way, according to the author's Amazon page the sequel to this comes out April 1st, so we're only a couple weeks away. Not exactly summertime, but not like I can complain about getting it sooner.

    1. Sorry for the late response, but yes, an earlier release of Sun, Sea and Murder is nothing to complain about. You can look forward to more reviews of neo-GAD mysteries in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy The Mystery of Treefall Manor!

  2. After seeing both you and Steve (aka Puzzle Doctor) recommend The "Mystery of Treefall Manor" highly, I just finished this and thought it was excellent. I agree it was fairly-clued, but I could not come up with the "who" or the "how". Nevertheless, Savage kept the narrative moving with memorable characters and no sagging in the middle.

    With last year's sad passing of Rupert Heath (Dean Street Press) and the recent loss of John Pugmire (Locked Room International), I might worry that there is not a next generation of champions to maintain and extend the brilliance of GAD fiction ... particularly as I see the number of active GAD blogs either cease or slow down. Thank goodness for authors such as Byrnside, Carver, Mead, Savage, etc. who are bring us credible, new GAD stories as well as prolific GAD bloggers like you. Perhaps we indeed will get that GAD renaissance to which you have predicted.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Scott! You probably already read the other comments, but the second one is going to be released in a few weeks time. I look forward to see what Savage has in store for it.

      Yeah, I knew John Pugmire had health problems, but was shocked when I heard of his passing. What he did for the locked room mystery and helping to popularize translated mysteries can't be understated. It helped to set the wheels towards that new Golden Age in motion and nothing, except perhaps for World War III, can derail it now. Just wait for the next post to see there are still champions to maintain the GAD brilliance and the writers you named are currently busily at work extending it.