Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Man in Lower Ten: Review

A stolen berth.  Switched clothes.  Missing evidence.  Mysterious men and even more mysterious women.  And....murder.  It's business as usual for Mary Roberts Rinehart in The Man in Lower Ten.  

This particular novel gives us Lawrence Blakely--confirmed bachelor and dedicated lawyer in the partnership of Blakely & McKnight.  Blakely agrees to  make a journey from Washington to Pittsburgh to obtain a deposition from a man on the fraudulent nature of bank notes which would serve as exhibit A in the prosecution's case against Bronson, the forger.  It was supposed to be McKnight's turn to travel, but Blakely is doing his friend and partner a favor--so he can go see his girl.  The business in Pittsburgh goes well and Blakely is headed home with the deposition and the forged bank notes when his generally uneventful life gets turned upside down.

When he prepares to book himself a sleeping berth in the Pullman car, he is asked by a tall, stately woman to obtain a lower berth for her as well.  He is given Lower 10 and Lower 11 and randomly hands her the stub for Lower 11.  Unfortunately, when he's ready to settle down for the night, he discovers Lower 10 already occupied by what seems to be the deepest sleeper ever.  Neither he nor the porter is able to rouse the interloper and Blakely settles into Lower 9--apparently the sleeper's rightful bed.  Later, drowsy but unable to sleep--in part because Lower 10 is now sawing logs like a lumber mill--he decides to go for a smoke in the vestibule.  There, he has an encounter with another woman with copper colored hair.  He returns to bed and finally drops off.  Things really get interesting when he wakes in the morning....

First...he finds that his clothes and shoes have disappeared and have been replaced by a shirt half a size too small in the neck and shoes a full size too small.  At least the pants fit.  He panics when he discovers that his bag--containing the evidence--is gone as well, although thoughtfully replaced with another.  Not a totally heartless thief, apparently.  Brief moment of hope when the porter points out that he has slept in Lower 7 and NOT Lower 9, only to have hopes dashed when none of his belongings are to be found.  But Blakely's fun has just begun.  Because the man in Lower 10 has been murdered....and there are blood stains on the linens in Lower 7 and a murder weapon and a convenient little amateur detective who seems bent on helping the conductor put two and two together to come up with a four that has Blakely's name written in large letters to spell CULPRIT. 

But, wait, before anything decisive can happen with the whole "let's suspect Blakely" thing....the train is wrecked.  Blakely, a young woman named Alison West (who just happens to be the granddaughter of the man who gave Blakely the deposition), the two mysterious women and the amateur detective are the only survivors of car seven.  Our young hero returns home with a broken arm, without the vital evidence evidence, with an unspoken love for Miss West, and under the shadow of suspicion.  He finds himself followed by policemen and with the help of McKnight and the amateur detective he sets out to find the murderer and, hopefully, track down the missing evidence.  Oh, and, of course, he sets out to win the girl.

There are quite a few coincidences--particularly in the occupants and survivors of car seven...maybe a few too many to be believable, but overall this is a nice solid little mystery.  Rinehart tells the reader straight up in the first paragraph that there will be clues enough to build up a case against three different people and only one will be guilty.  And she's right--but even knowing there are a limit of three suspects didn't help me spot the right one.  Good for Rinehart for keeping us guessing.  But what's really fun about this one is that it's a bit of twist on the "Had I But Known" school of mysteries.  The usual drill for HIBK stories is for the protagonist to be a woman.  A governess/companion/nurse/what-have-you who goes into a situation and then spends her time throughout the story telling the reader, "Had I known that X intended to do Y...." or "Had I known the evil that awaited me at Whosit Manor, I would never have..."  But here?  We've got ourselves a nice, level-head lawyer spouting off these lovely little HIBK-type tidbits: "Had Harrington slept in his own berth.." and "...I had no premonition of what was to come..." and the like.  It's quite refreshing.   Not quite Rinehart's best, but a pleasant mystery AND my copy has the bonus of illustrations.  Three and a half stars.

 ...nobody cares for second-hand thrills. Besides, you want the unvarnished and ungarnished truth, and I'm no hand for that.  I'm a lawyer. [McKnight] (p. 5)

I had no premonition of what was to come. Nothing unusual had ever happened to me; friends of mine had sometimes sailed the high seas of adventure or skirted the coast of chance, but all of the shipwrecks had occurred after a woman passenger had been taken on. (p. 13)

For the first time in my life it's even course began to waiver; the needle registered warning marks on the matrimonial seismograph. (p. 14)

No word of love had passed between us, but I felt that she knew and understood. It was one of the moments that come seldom in a lifetime, and then only in great crisis, a moment of perfect understanding. (p. 160)


Ryan said...

I havne't written my review of this one yet, but I think we had similiar reactions. I enjoyed it, but it's not my favorite of hers.

Rick Mills said...

Reading my copy now - I have two hardcovers: A Reader's League reprint (probably 1940's) and a Front Page Mystery (1929) - and NEITHER ONE HAS ILLUSTRATIONS! Darn! All I got was a little diagram of the berth arrangement. Oh well. Good night for a railway mystery! my review