Sunday, May 2, 2021

Dead Man's Secret by Mary Plum (1931)

About the author: All I could find is this Goodreads list and this bibliography on

Major characters:
  • John Smith, consulting detective
  • Gray Manners, host
  • Golding, Gray's valet
  • Mary Angell, actress
  • Louise Angell, her daughter
  • Tommy Bruce, Louise's fiancĂ©
  • Janet Thayers
  • Ernst Putnam
  • Gretchen VanTeel, Putnam's fiancĂ©e
  • "Rook" Chilvers
  • Blake, Rook's valet
  • Police Chief Matson
  • District Attorney George Hewey
  • Coroner Fox
Locale: "one hour north of Chicago, on Lake Michigan" which puts it in Wisconsin.

Synopsis: Consulting detective John Smith is travelling back to Chicago and decides to stop in to see his old friend Gray Manners. Manners is in the midst of hosting a house party, and reluctantly invites Smith in. Smith observes the "party" is not going well, everyone seems glum and on edge. Most are wondering why Rook Chilvers, a notorious ex-con, is present.

It is revealed that actress Mary Angell has had her pearls and diamonds stolen from her bedroom during the night, but this does not seem to concern anyone. The guests retire upstairs for the night. John hears a gunshot, and runs upstairs to find Chilvers mortally wounded in his bedroom. A doctor is called. Before Chilvers passes away, he mentions a letter, and points to Mary Angell and says "You!". It turns out Chilvers had a row earlier and struck Ernst Putnam, who then left the house. Then the gun which had been seen near the body disappears. A maid reveals Chilvers had received a letter in the mail that morning, which apparently had been burned as ashes were found in Chilver's wastebasket. 

Smith works with District Attorney George Hewer to interview the guests and find the murderer. Tracing the (burned) registered letter leads them to a source who unravels everything. There is no shortage of suspects: three of the guests confess to being the killer!

Review: This is John Smith's second appearance (the first was in The Killing of Judge Mac Farlane). Once we get past the too-convenient setup of the detective just happening to drop in minutes before a murder, the story goes pretty well. We have a nice detailed drawing of the layout. What a house! And what is in that huge basketball-court space in the middle? (I would expect it to be open to the first floor with a gallery hallway all around).

And the crime scene:

Smith has to work hard to pull information from the reluctant guests. When the motive is finally revealed (it will not spoil the story to mention it has to do with some documents held by Chilvers), it is a clever surprise to the reader. The documents reveal relationships between some of the guests in a unique way, the way it all resolves is quite unexpected and satisfying.

The story has some drawbacks. First, the arrival of Smith is hyped by the author who brags about him quite a bit unnecessarily. There are several hints (but not explicity stated) - that the victim Chilvers is Black. The revelation of the murderer is a letdown and the reader feels cheated a bit. And a big loose end is left dangling: the victim was shot from behind, and much was made of the fact the revolver was found far in front of the victim (see drawing); instead of behind him where a murderer would likely drop it on his way out. However, the book ends without explaining the significance.

Overall, this is a nice, tight period mystery with a solid cast of characters; and I hope to find some more titles in this John Smith series: 
  • The Killing of Judge MacFarlane, 1930
  • Dead Man's Secret, 1931
  • Murder at the Hunting Club, 1932
  • Murder at the World's Fair, 1933
  • State Department Cat, 1945
  • Susanna, Don't You Cry!, 1946
  • The Murder of a Red-Haired Man, 1951

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