About the author: Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was married to Hadwin Houghton, the heir of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing empire. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, being in a publishing family created an easy pipeline for getting her works into print. She wrote a total of more than 170 books, including 61 Fleming Stone detective stories. See this Wikipedia article.
At Variable Winds:
- Gray Norris, our narrator
- Keeley Moore, detective, renting Variable Winds for the season
- Lora Moore, his wife
- Maud Merrill, house guest
- Mrs. Katherine Dallas, a widow, engaged to Sampson Tracy
- Posy May
- Dick Hardy
At The Pleasure Dome:
- Sampson Tracy, millionaire owner
- Harper Ames, house guest
- Billy Dean, one of Sampson's secretaries, in love with Alma Remsen
- Charles Everett, the other secretary, and Bill Dean's superior
- Griscom, butler
- Mrs. Fenn, cook-housekeeper
- Sally Bray, chambermaid
- Louis, chauffeur
At The Island of Whistling Reeds:
- Miss Alma Remsen, Sampson Tracy's niece
- Mrs. Merivale, her nurse/companion
- John Merivale, her husband
- Dora Merivale, their daughter, and Alma's personal maid
Police Detective March
Police Inspector Farrell
Synopsis: Our narrator, Gray Norris, is invited by detective Keeley Moore to a fishing vacation at his rental house, "Variable Winds", on a Wisconsin lake. Next door is "The Pleasure Dome", a large home built my millionaire Sampson Tracy. (He is engaged to widowed Mrs. Katherine Dallas, a house guest at Variable Winds). Nearby is The Island of Whistling Reeds, home to Miss Alma Remson, Tracy's niece. She had lived with him following the death of her parents, but now with his upcoming marriage, she has been "put out" to the island. Looks like she and Mrs. Dallas don't get along.
Gray and Moore set out on their first fishing outing, only to be called back. Sampson Tracy has been found dead, with various objects arranged him as decorations. He was found in his bedroom, locked from the inside; with the windows overlooking a steep drop to a treacherous inlet called The Sunless Sea. Cause of death is found to be a nail driven into his head.*
All suspicion points at young Alma, who was seen (by Gray Norris) at the scene of the crime. He is reticent to reveal this, as he has fallen in love with her. However, evidence is mounting that she is not quite right.
* reminiscent of the obscure Biblical account of Jael and Sisera, in Judges 4:21
Here is a locked room mystery with plenty of odds and ends. The narrator jumps right in over his head to fall in love with the prime suspect. It is a puzzler, and as I approached the final few pages with no resolution, I began to get anxious that it could be explained at all. Yet, the twist at the end explained it. Being a 1920's book, it predates - and blithely violates - some rules of Fair Play, both in Knox's Ten Commandments and S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules; perhaps this sort of novel is what prompted the creation of the Fair Play rules in the first place.
The big mystery to me about 1920's mysteries is where do all these people get their money, to have luxurious waterfront homes, full staff of servants, and no jobs?
There is, near our home, an empty 1930's estate which is owned by a land trust, and open to the public. It consists of a large oceanfront home, gardens, swimming pool, tennis court, etc; all in a state of preservation pretty much as they left it. It is a haunting, rather sad, place to see empty; and when I read mysteries set on such estates, this is what I see in my mind's eye. Maybe sometime I will go there with a lawn chair and some 1920's mysteries and really become immersed.
Also see Bev Hankin's review of this title on her blog, My Reader's Block.