Sunday, October 2, 2016

A.E.W. Mason's The House of the Arrow

The varied and prolific literary output of London-born A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948) included five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud. The House of the Arrow was the second Hanaud novel, appearing in 1924 (14 years after the character made his debut in At the Villa Rose).

A London firm of solicitors receives some disturbing news about one of their clients who resides in France (in Dijon in fact). A rather wild accusation of murder has been levelled at Betty Harlowe after the death of her aunt (and adoptive mother). It seems quite likely that the accusation may have been inspired by blackmail. The famed Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté has been assigned to investigate the case, a circumstance that suggests that the French authorities may be taking the charges seriously. Junior partner Jim Frobisher is despatched to Dijon to ensure that the interests of the firm’s client are adequately represented.

Betty’s aunt had died more than a week previously, apparently of natural causes. The charges against Betty were made by old Mrs Harlowe’s disreputable brother-in-law Boris Waberski who had been more than a little incensed when his hopes of a large legacy were dashed.

Jim Frobisher is no fool but he is young and inexperienced and he proves to be very susceptible to the charms of Betty’s paid companion, Ann Upcott. Ann’s account of the events of the night of Mrs Harlowe’s death is puzzling to say the least.

Hanaud has no evidence whatsoever that foul play was involved but he has his suspicions. In fact his suspicions amount almost to certainty. And if it is murder this is precisely the kind of murderer that he intensely dislikes.

Inspector Hanaud’s English friend Mr Julius Ricardo, who usually plays the Watson role,  does not appear in this novel. Jim Frobisher fulfills the role instead. He finds the celebrated inspector  from the Sûreté to be an impressive figure and he is awed by Hanaud’s skill and cunning in interrogating witnesses. Young Jim is however a very proper young Englishman  and he does not altogether approve of Hanaud’s odd mix of theatricality and ruthlessness.

This novel includes just about every ingredient that critics of golden age detective fiction love to mock. In fact if you were planning to write a parody of the classic English detective novel you could use The House of the Arrow as a template. On the other hand the ingredients that cause critics to gnash their teeth are exactly the ingredients that fans of golden age detective fiction (like myself) adore. To a true fan the more outlandish these elements are the better and in this instance they’re delightfully outlandish.

Mason combines these ingredients with a considerable degree of panache.

When Mason originally created Hanaud in 1910 he was attempting, like so many Victorian and Edwardian crime writers, to create a detective with as few similarities to Sherlock Holmes as possible. He succeeded pretty well. Hanaud is a massive bear of a man and while he has his quirks he has none of the neuroticism of Holmes. He is as arrogant as Holmes but in a blustering and ebullient sort of way. Hanaud has his serious side too. He takes murder very seriously. Unlike Holmes he is a professional policeman. He likes his job but the detection of crime is not a game to him. He also has an immense belief in the majesty of the law. It is not pleasant to send someone to the guillotine but the law is the law.

Is The House of the Arrow fair play? I think that on the whole it is. Hanaud certainly makes use of psychological insights but mostly as a means of getting the truth out of reluctant witnesses. Hanaud’s skills as an interrogator of witnesses are a major reason for his success as a policeman. Alibis, the timing of events and physical clues are not ignored either.

The House of the Arrow is splendid entertainment. It’s not as ground-breaking as his earlier At the Villa Rose and it lacks the hints of the supernatural of his later The Prisoner in the Opal but it’s a fine example of the classic detective story. Highly recommended.

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