Review: The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley by Louis Tracy (1919)

Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley by Louis Tracy
Publication: ebook, 686 pages in iPod Touch, originally published 1919 (not 1915 like MB.net says)
Genre: Mystery/Detective
Rating: 3.5/5
Find ebook @ ManyBooks.net

What a fun book! I’m glad I downloaded this, because I had a wonderful time reading it. It’s lighthearted enough that it kept my spirits up as I come to the end of a boring intersession class, plus it has engaging characters and an easy, comfortable plot.

Copying the summary published in the New York Times, March 21, 1920 (it’s better than anything I could come up with right now):

When John Trenholme, artist, accepted a welcome commission from a magazine editor to journey down to a certain old Hertfordshire village and make a series of sketches of its imperiled beauties, he looked forward to nothing more exciting than an agreeable, wholly peaceful little expedition. Certainly he did not in the least expect to get mixed up with a murder, and to find himself one of the most important witnesses in “The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley.”

The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley takes place in just one day, but it certainly packs a lot into it. There’s murder, and intrigue, multiple meals, a detective like looks like a French comedian and another detective with a head shaped like a bullet (a description which, by the way, was used in N or M? to describe Germans). The detectives in this mystery are actually Scotland Yard people, which is nice to see after reading about so many amateur detectives.

Detective Inspector Charles Furneaux, aka the “Little ‘Un,” and Superintendent James Winter, aka the “Big ‘Un,” are two rather brilliant detectives who are well-known for their brilliance and as a bonus, work really well together. They have a comfortable partnership that’s full of teasing and gentle insults. From the get-go I knew they’d get their man (it’s always a man, isn’t it), mostly because of this sentence:

More than one eminent scoundrel had either blown out his brains or given himself up to the law when he knew that the Big ‘Un and Little ‘Un of the Yard were hot on his track.

Wow! That’s certainly a powerful statement, eh? Makes them seem almost vicious, but they aren’t, really.

Mr. Tracy tends to say things like that a lot; there’s a lot of foreshadowing and outright fortune-telling going on through the text. He knows more than his characters, including events in the future, but he doesn’t mind sharing that knowledge with us readers. It’s slightly annoying, but I think it must be a stylistic choice of that time period and so I excused it. Mr. Tracy also tends to show more than tell, but since it’s such a short book that can probably be excused as well.

Anyway, the murder itself is rather tame, but the plot still has an interesting build-up to the solution. Actually the solution comes rather early on, but the rest of the book is absorbed with getting enough evidence to prove that solution and then tying up the loose ends. There’s a cute romantic sub-plot as well, between Johnny Trenholme and Sylvia Manning, Mortimer Fenley’s beautiful young ward (it’s always a beautiful young ward, isn’t it).

There were a few problems I had, however, mainly because I felt a lot of sympathy for the villain and don’t think Mr. Tracy really showed how bad he– the villain– was. I mean, yeah, he killed Mortimer Fenley, but there was never a really satisfactory motive for me to explain why he did it.

Most of that revelation came after the end of the mystery, at any rate, and any earlier hints were simply unconvincing. The chase scene at the end was a small problem as well; I think I’m more used to extremely exciting chases between cops and bad guys, and The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley just didn’t have that oomph. I’m not sure if that’s another sign of the time period or if it’s just a plot problem. It was a little disappointing, but I will say that the end of the chase was perfect and the delicate tying up of loose plot ends made up for any bad feelings.

Overall, I would say that this was a quick read, easy to get into and perfect for a Saturday afternoon (even though I read it during the week, in the mornings. Er.). It’s not quite into the 1920’s world that Agatha Christie wrote about so well, but it’s not exactly Victorian, either. It’s very Edwardian, then. (Is there even such a genre? I’ve never heard of a specifically Edwardian mystery, but I suppose they tend to get overlooked with all the flappers and bustles and things that come before and after them. Anyway.)

Louis Tracy wrote some other mysteries, as well as a few romances, and I definitely plan on reading them. I hope some of them have Winter and Furneaux; I liked them a lot!

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