I picked up ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the premise, and because I saw echoes of another author of the period whose books I love in the premise and in the cover art.
When I started to read I realised that those echoes were faint and I came to love this book for its own sake.
It begins with Amy Steer, who is alone in the world. She has lodgings in London, she has been doing the rounds of employment agencies and scanning newspaper advertisements with little success; and her unsympathetic landlady has noticed her situation and wants her out. She has no idea what she should do when she notices an advertisement in the personal column of the newspaper she is scanning, advising that relatives of Julius Horace Steer who responded could discover something to their advantage
That was the distinctive name of Amy’s father, who had died when she was just two years old. She quickly pens a response, and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall, the aunt she never knew that she had.
Amy’s new aunt explains she is her father’s sister, and that her advertisement had been running in the newspaper. And that she lived quietly in the country, thanks to the kindness of old friends.
She had been close to her nephew but they had become estranged, then she had remembered that her brother had left a daughter, and now she was inviting her niece to come and share her home in Larnwood.
Amy was taken aback. Harriet Hall – tall, eccentrically clad and heavily made-up – was not the sort of aunt she had expected; but of course, she reminded herself, her mother had never spoken to her about her father’s family, and she had been greeted so warmly and presented with a generous gift of £100 to suitable clothes and to cover her train fare.
A few days later Amy was sitting on a train with a trunk full of lovely new clothes. She struck up a conversation with a young man sitting nearby. He introduced himself as Tony Dene, they got on wonderfully well; but when he found that they were travelling to the same station and that she was the niece of Mrs Harriet Hall, his whole demeanour changed and he began to pull away from her.
Disembarking at Larnwood station, Amy found herself alone on the platform. Tony Dene had rushed off without a word and nobody had come to greet her. She set out to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage, telling herself that there must have been a misunderstanding over that time or date of her arrival.
When Amy reached her destination the door was open, the kitchen stove was warm, but her aunt was nowhere to be seen. She settled down to wait, but nobody came to the cottage, and so the next morning she set out to the Dower House, where her aunt’s friends lived.
The Dene family had bought the Dower House, not very long ago, and their reaction to her news was not at all what she had expected. Mrs Dene seemed nervous and in thrall to Mrs Hall, rather than showing the concern of a friend. Tony and his younger sister Molly made no secret of their dislike, and their older sister Lavvy, who was beautiful but brittle,and her mother’s favourite, expressed similar views.
Amy had been worried already and the reactions of the Dene family worried her even more, but she didn’t have much time to think about what the truth of the whole situation might be, because Tony – sent to check the cottage – found a corpse in the well at the bottom of the garden.
The local police were called in, they investigated slowly, steadily and systematically. It seemed that there were a number of suspects and that none of them had a decent alibi.
The Lord and Lady of the Manor were not at all happy. They disapproved of the engagement of their son and heir to Lavvy Dene, the daughter of an unknown family who bought rather than inherited properly, and now her family were caught up in a murder enquiry. They called the Chief Constable and he called in Scotland Yard.
Meanwhile, Amy realised that her own situation looked rather suspicious. She also realised that she had next to no money left, because she had counted on the support of her aunt, and because the police had told her not to leave the district she had to find some way of earning her living locally.
The plot that unfolds is well constructed, it had some interesting elements that I haven’t come across in a Golden Age mystery before, and a nice mix of things that I could work out and wonderful surprises.
I liked Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard – who I believe is a series character. He was a capable professional, he was a decent and compassionate man, and he worked steadily and without any undue fuss. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and very effectively deployed.
There was much in the heroine’s situation and in the development of – and obstacles to – romance that made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s books; but the way the story developed was quite different and the heroine thought and acted for herself rather more effectively than most of the Patricia Wentworth heroines I have met.
I’m not sure what Miss Silver would have made of this mystery, but I think that anyone who had enjoyed following her cases would also enjoy this book.
The story is well told, the mystery is memorable, and I definitely want to read more by its author.