I picked up ‘The Man with the Dark Beard’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the promise of a story that brought together elements of the sensation novel and elements of the modern (for the 1920s) mystery story.
It starts with Dr. John Bastow asking for advice from his oldest friend, Sir Felix Skrine:
‘Suppose that in the course of a man’s professional career he found that a crime had been committed, had never been discovered, never even suspected, what would you say such a man ought to do?’
Sir Felix, a King’s Counsel, advises his friend to speak to the police, but something makes his friend hesitant. He decides to think about it and maybe talk it over again.
Later that day the doctor is found dead in his study, shot through the head.
Detective Inspector William Stoddart was called in to investigate. He found a half-written letter to Sir Felix; he learned that the Chinese box that held the proofs of the crime that the doctor uncovered was missing; and he found a scrap of paper on which it seemed that the doctor had written:
‘IT WAS THE MAN WITH THE DARK BEARD.’
Now the solution might seem obvious. Find the crime that Dr. Barstow had discovered and find his killer!
But maybe it wasn’t quite that simple.
- Basil Wilton, the doctor’s assistant, had fallen in love with his daughter, Hilary, and the two of them wanted to marry. Her father was opposed to the match, and angry that his assistant had courted his daughter behind his back.
- The parlour maid to the Barstows, Mary Ann Taylor, had been suspected as not quite who she held herself out to be. Not long after the murder she dressed in her best clothes, told the policeman at the door that she was a friend of Hilary’s who had called to condole with her, and then left the house and disappeared without trace.
- When concerns about her future were raised, Miss Houlton, the doctor’s secretary, said that she had come into a substantial that very day and would not need to find a new position.
- Doctor Morris, a close friend and colleague of John Barstow, and the only person in his immediate circle with a beard, couldn’t quite account for his time on the day of the murder. And he attended the inquest clean shaven.
Was any of this significant?
The story was set up nicely, and I found much to enjoy. The characters and their relationships were very well drawn, sensational stories of the past informed the story, and so did the changing times of the 1920s and the future possibilities that must have seem so tantalising then.
Nowhere is that better encapsulated than in Miss Lavinia Priestly, aunt of Hilary and her crippled brother Fee. She was described as ‘a spinster of eccentric habits’; she was a world traveller; she loved her niece and nephew dearly; she had very firm opinions, some modern and some traditional, and she was always ready to call a spade a spade.
I loved her, and I had a strong suspicion that she was the author’s alter-ego.
As executor of John Bastow’s will, Sir Felix told Hilary that he would respect her father’s wishes and separate her from Basil Wilton. He explained that whoever bought her father’s medical practice would also want the family home that stood alongside it, and so he would give her and her brother a new home; a cottage just outside his country estate.
Sir Felix laid flowers on his late wife’s grave every day; but it soon became clear that he was positioning Hilary to become his second wife.
Aunt Lavinia thought that if would be a wonderful marriage for Hilary; but Hilary loved Basil and she was not going to give him up.
But back in London Basil Wilton was having all kinds of problems. He became entangled with Miss Houlton, she nursed him through a mysterious illness, and when there was a second murder it appeared that he was the only person with means, motive and opportunity for both crimes.
Inspector Stoddart and his colleague, Alfred Harbord, were thorough, capable, and very professional as they went about their business. I appreciated that they were detectives without gimmicks, and that they dealt so well with all of the people affected by the murders.
The way that the story played out wasn’t too surprising. I had my suspect, their motive, and most of how they did it worked out at a very early stage. I was happy to keep reading though, because Annie Haynes was such a good story-teller, because I was involved with the characters and their concerns, and because I wanted to establish one or two details.
The plot is well constructed, but there are one or too loose ends. And I was disappointed in the ending of Aunt Lavinia’s story.
So the verdict is not quite perfect, but a very enjoyable book nonetheless.
The pull between tradition and modernity was particularly interesting.
And though there is much that is familiar in this book; when considered as a whole it is distinctive and not quite like anybody else I can remember reading.
I’ll happily read more of Annie Haynes’ work, and I’ll be glad to meet her detectives again.