Saturday, June 21, 2014

No. 9 Belmont Square: Review

A strange house, filled with ancient sin--and in it, a frightened girl fighting an evil force she could not see or touch...

I have discussed on a previous post or two how Margaret Erskine's Inspector Septimus Finch detective novels often appear with covers that give them the appearance of Gothic romance. I am not the only one to notice this trend. Curt over in comments at a mysteryfile discussion on Erskine has this to say: 

Someone should do a piece on those things. Apparently the Dark Shadows Gothic craze in the late 60s-early 70s was so great that publishers were desperate to Gothicize even relatively orthodox English detective novels. So suddenly we get this procession of cheap paperbacks, each with a cover illustration of some terrified, pretty young ingenue wandering around in the moonlit night on the lawn of some great mansion! I imagine purchasers frequently must have been disappointed with what they found between the covers.

As the opening quote (from the back cover) and the cover photo indicate, my copy of No. 9 Belmont Square is such an edition. And while Erskine does tend to heap on a bit more chilling atmosphere and a sense of heroine in distress than the average crime novel, I still wouldn't shelve most of her novels in the Gothic Romance or even Gothic Suspense section. Central to the story is the mystery--a mystery of a missing diamond as well as a long-lost romantic interest. A mystery that begins in murder and ends with other tragic deaths. We are not caught up in the terrors and possible romance (though danger and romance there will be) of Miss Sara Harkness.

When the book opens we are focused on an entirely different character. Opera star Istvan Kardos appears on a show called "Out of the Past," a sort of  "It's Your Life" program in which the celebrity chooses the people from his past to feature. Kardos does the usual run of who's who from conductors to singers to even displaced Austrian noblemen...but then does something different. He turns alone to the camera and tells of his lost love...beautiful Tamara Lubova who disappeared from his life just before the war (and, incidentally, taking with her a famous diamond called the Lake of Fire). Of all the people from his past, he would most like to see Tamara again. He makes an impassioned plea for Tamara to come to him out of the past. Inspector Finch happens to be watching the program with his sergeant, Archie Slater, a fan of the opera and Kardos. While Slater is moved by Kardos's story, Finch, who is known for his uncanny ability to sense a crime before it becomes apparent, worries that Kardos may be waking up memories better left to slumber.

It isn't long before Kardos is inundated with messages from women claiming to be his beloved  Tamara. He dismisses them all as cranks and imposters...until an unremarkable grayish green envelope postmarked Seamarsh arrives. This one is convincing and after a bit of effective detective work on his part he learns that the note paper and envelope are from a boarding house at No. 9 Belmont Square in Seamarsh. He determines to go to Belmont Square in search of the dia--er, his lady-love.

What he actually finds is house full of dotty elderly ladies, a barmy gentleman or two, a maid-of-all-work who suffers from bouts of religious (read end-of the world) mania, and an unexpectedly young boarding house owner with her smarmy, hanger-on brother. The "Fuddy-Duddies" as Sara and her brother affectionately call their boarders have a penchant for sneaking about the hallways, into one another's rooms, surreptitiously snatching items they take a shine to, and stashing things in locked cupboards. Kardos suspects one of them of being Tamara, all of them of harboring secrets, and one of them of having the diamond. And then Sara's lawyer is found dead in the front sitting room and Kardos can only believe that one of them has committed murder. Inspector Finch arrives on the scene and soon proves him correct.

Erskine is no Sayers or Christie...but she is a good, solid second-tier Golden Age mystery writer. Her story is decently plotted and entertaining. I enjoyed the houseful of dotty women and it made it interesting to watch Inspector Finch try to wrest secrets from the elderly band. They enjoyed hugging those secrets to their chests too much. I will admit (most ashamedly) that I didn't spot the culprit. I should have. And I bet you will if you give this one a try. But the clues trotted right by me and I didn't even notice. An enjoyable ★★★ and a half.

This fulfills the "Place" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card and gives me my second Silver Bingo! Woo Hoo!


fredamans said...

This one sounds like it would be a lot of fun to read. I was quite entertained by the plot. Great review!

Peggy Ann said...

I love the look of the covers even though I'm not a gothic romance reader. I will be on the lookout for her books!

Ryan said...

I've never read this author, and I love that cover. Honestly I'm a huge fan if that style of cover. Not sure why.