Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Maxwell Mystery by Carolyn Wells (1913)

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.

Major characters:

  • Peter King, our narrator
  • Irene Gardiner
  • Philip Maxell, the host
  • Mildred Leslie, his girlfriend
  • Edith (Leslie) Whiting, Mildred's sister
  • Tom Whiting, her husband
  • Miss Miranda Maxwell, Philip's maiden aunt
  • *Mr. Alexander Maxwell, Philip's uncle; brother of Miranda
  • Gilbert Crane
  • Clarence, Earl of Clarendon
  • Mr. Hunt, society detective
  • Fleming Stone, investigator
*Note: In the story "Mr. Maxwell" always refers to the elder, Alexander Maxwell.

Locale: New Jersey

Synopsis: Peter King, our narrator, is invited to a gathering at Philip Maxwell's country mansion, "Maxwell's Chimneys'. This is also the home of his aunt (Miss Miranda Maxwell) and deaf uncle, (Mr. Alexander Maxwell). The occasion is the expected engagement announcement of Philip to Mildred Leslie. During the train ride to the New Jersey mansion, Peter becomes enchanted with Irene Gardiner, on her way to it also. 

They arrive and join the other guests: Clarence, Earl of Clarendon; Gilbert Crane, Edith Whiting (née Leslie, Mildred's sister) and her husband Tom Whitney. Soon after all are present, Philip and Mildred retire to the library, where the guests believe he is proposing. Not so. Philip is shot dead, and Mildred found unconscious with a minor wound, with a gun in her hand.

Peter enlists the aid of Mr. Hunt, a "society detective" (whatever that is). Together they try to piece together what happened. Mildred revives and reveals they were both shot by an intruder. Peter and Hunt seek out clues which tend to point at the Earl. After coming to a dead end, Fleming Stone is consulted and provides the denouément.

Review: Just one chapter in, and already the formula is revealed:
  1. A murder will occur at the country house
  2. Peter King will be the amateur investigator
  3. Little progress will be made other than collection the clues
  4. Fleming Stone will appear at the end and provide the solution
This is your generic country house murder, with a lot of padding in the middle. Peter and Hunt mess around with clues, neither quite knowing what they are doing. The story takes a long diversion midway with a chase after the supposed intruder, whom they find, but which does not produce a suspect. Finally, as in the other Fleming Stone stories, he pops in (page 273 of 302!), takes a quick look around, and announces the solution. 

I had hoped the chase after the mysterious intruder would have supplied a solution, but no. The expected love interest of Peter and Irene fades away also. Overall, formulaic, but a nice look at country house and society customs of a century ago.

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