Saturday, April 17, 2021

Murder in the Bookshop

 Murder in the Bookshop (1936) by Carolyn Wells

Philip Balfour is a man who likes to have his own way--and his own way generally involves rare books. So, when he decides that he can't wait any longer for a couple of Lewis Carroll books that Sewell's bookshop had tracked down for him, he insists that his librarian Keith Ramsay go with him to the shop on a "little marauding expedition." They break into the shop and start looking for the books (as well as an even rarer book with a near-impossible-to-find inscription in the hand of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence). Ramsay has just stumbled upon this last book's hiding place when the lights go out. 

The next thing we (and Ramsay) know, his employer is dead--stabbed to the heart with an antique silver skewer. He calls the police and tracks John Sewell down at, of all places, Philip Balfour's apartment. When questioned, he tells an unlikely-sounding story. He's quite honest about how he and Balfour entered the building and then says that when the lights went out he caught a glimpse of a masked man before the fellow chloroformed him. And when he came to, he found Balfour dead. It is also discovered that the book with the famous inscription is missing. Ramsay and Sewell both insist that the masked man must be both a murderer and a thief. Inspector Manton naturally has little faith in this mysterious masked man and believes Ramsay has killed his boss. He's even more certain when his investigations uncover the fact that Ramsay and Alli Balfour, the new widow, appear to be in love.

Sewell calls upon his friend Fleming Stone to help find the murderer and the missing book. Stone is a private detective of sorts who has worked with the police before and is "a wizard for getting at the heart of a mystery."

...he isn't one of those story-book detectives, who startle you with their marvellous and often useless discoveries. But he is a deep thinker and a quick reasoner and, since I know his worth, I mean to ask his help.

Stone immediately believes that there is more to the case than a simple love-triangle with murder as the solution. But when he investigates the other possible suspects--Sewell's shop assistant Preston Gill' Balfour's son Guy; Peter Wiley, a fellow book collector; and Carl Swinton, long-time acquaintance of the Balfours--he can find little motive and even less opportunity. Things begin to take shape when Guy Balfour is also murdered, a ransom note appears demanding money for the return of the book, and then Alli Balfour is apparently kidnapped. Manton with twisted logic still seems to believe that Ramsay is still behind it all and Stone embarks on a risky mission to prove the truth at last.

This was a fairly disappointing read for me. The setting in the book world was a definite plus and is part of the reason I bought it. I like that the murder takes place in a bookshop; there's a lot of talk about book collectors; and the Macguffin is a rare book that is stolen. However, I find it a bit unbelievable that Sewell would be so casual about Balfour and Ramsay breaking into his shop. I don't care how trustworthy they've been in the past. "Oh, officer, it's no big deal that they broke into the shop. After all they were only looking for the books I'd obtained for Balfour--they've every excuse for breaking in to get what was essentially Balfour's property." Seriously? And if his shop is that easily broken into by a couple of amateurs, I'd think he'd at least be alarmed that someone far more unscrupulous might break in and run off with more of his rare books. But from his reaction you'd think it was just business as usual for people to force a window and enter his shop while he was out. 

Oddly, the story contains lots of activity, but no action--if that makes sense. All sorts of things happen but they effect very little forward movement in the plot. It feels like it should be a fast-moving ride, especially after the mid-point, but somebody has left the hand-brake on. The rhythm of the dialogue is off. It just doesn't sound natural to me. The words and phrases are generally all correct, but they're lifeless. I wanted to like this more than I did--but no amount of "want to" can make this more than a  and a half (and that may be a little generous).

This has also been reviews by Kate over at Cross Examining Crime, who gave it four stars. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy! leans more towards my views and the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery was very disappointed. So your mileage may vary.

First lines: Mr. Philip Balfour was a good man. Also, he was good-looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is, when he had his own way, which was practically always.

Last line: And smilingly, they went out into the clear bright autumn sunshine.

SPOILER ALERT: Unless I missed it there is no explanation given for why the murderer went to Sewell's shop or had any idea that Balfour and Ramsay would be there. Did he just hang out wherever Balfour was likely to be in the hopes of murdering him? Why didn't he stick to the original murder plot?


Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one suffocated)

Bonus short story: "The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery"

Another biblio-mystery. This time focused on a rare printing of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Two collectors who know one another personally each claim to have found a rare first printing of Shakespeare's work. One proves to be fake--but whose is it really? Has someone switched the copies? And, if so, who?

This short literary mystery was much more satisfactory than the longer story, though I am a little dubious about how much esoteric book knowledge Pierson of the New York Police seems to have. It would have been nice if he'd been introduced as a policeman with a background in the book world or who was a collector himself in private life. As it stands, there's no reason for him to be so quick on the uptake when it comes to various editions of rare books. But--if I suspend my disbelief on that point--I can say I enjoyed this story about a book swindle that didn't quite come off.

First line: "That's the way with you collectors!"

Last line: "The precious little volume is also a refugee, and a refugee is ever a sacred trust."

Deaths = one shot


Mystica said...

I've read several books recently with a murder and the bookshop as a backdrop. It seems to have become a popular setting! thanks for this review. This one is new to me.

Bev Hankins said...

Yes--there are whole series of more modern cozy mysteries set in bookshops. I read some of those. It's a special treat for me to find bookshop or library vintage mysteries (like this one).

Simon T - StuckinaBook said...

The premise of a bookshop murder sounded so good - what a shame it is so disappointing.

Bev Hankins said...

Simon--yeah, I love mysteries with this type of setting. It was a shame I couldn't love this particular one.