By Hook or by Crook* (1947; 1st US publication) by Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Malleson)
Normally Arthur Crook, lawyer-cum-private detective, is in it for the money. But occasionally a case takes his interest and the client is in no position to pay, so he treats it like Robin Hood--allowing his richer customers to pay for those who can't. Such is the case when he receives a plea for help from Miss Janet Martin. Miss Martin is a spinster in reduced circumstances who has befriended a charming little girl, Pamela Smith, and her governess Miss Terry (Teresa) Lawrence.
Miss Martin, who can no longer see well enough to read, spends her days watching people from her window. She is quite taken by the little girl in the red coat and red tam-o-shanter and is delighted when her little dog chases her landladies cat and gives her and excuse to meet Pamela. They--and Terry Lawrence--have a lovely time chatting over biscuits and then they exchange a couple more visits. Pamela is the ward of a very well-to-do gentleman who has given Miss Martin to understand that the girl will be very well looked after in the event of his death. He even has Miss Martin witness his will. But when Mr. Scott dies from an overdose--possible suicide--there is no such will to be found and his sister, the ominous Mrs. Barnes, whom Terry and Pamela have always referred to as an imposing, interfering woman, has Pamela sent away to an orphanage. Terry is called upon to help, but she soon fades out--she's got a fiance; is she too busy to worry about the little girl? Miss Martin knows that something is not right and asks Crook to investigate. His detective work unearths not only abduction, but fraud and murder as well. But just how many people are in on the plot anyway?
This isn't a usual whodunit in the classic tradition. We pretty much know who the bad guy(s) is (are) from early on. What is up for grabs is how many people are involved and whether Miss Martin and Mr. Crook are going to be able to convince the authorities. What is really interesting is the depiction of the plight of older women in post-war Britain. It's dreadful to have a dwindling pension and to be so dependent on the (hopefully) good will of relations. And then to not have many friends or much of a way to entertain oneself can make for very long days.
As with so many of Gilbert's books, she brings Crook in quite late. My favorites bring him into the action sooner. But Miss Martin is such an interesting character and the back ground involving her is so important that I didn't miss him quite as much. A good, solid read. ★★★ and a half.
First line: "Before you set out to commit a murder," said Arthur Crook--who was like certain Cabinet Ministers in that he rejoiced in sweeping statements--"there's one important point to bear in mind, something like a lion in your way. And even a lion-tamer can't be sure of circumnavigating this one: that is, there's no foolproof method of murder."
Last line: "Well, what would you do, chum?"
Deaths = 4 (three poisoned; one hung)