Carolyn Wells wrote an absurd number of books in a career spanning the first four decades of the twentieth century. One might get a bit nervous about the quality of an author who produced 170 novels, but I’ve seen Wells’ name associated with impossible crimes enough that I let curiosity get the best of me. Poking around the web suggested that the curiously titled Raspberry Jam might be one of her top five mysteries, and so I took a chance on a steal of an ancient but readably preserved edition.
We’re introduced to Eunice and Sanford Embury, a young couple with plenty of dough, temporarily housing zany Aunt Abby in their Manhattan apartment. Sanford will eventually end up murdered in a thoroughly locked room, but that doesn’t happen until midway through the book, and there’s a lot to unpack before we get there.
First there’s the “scandal” that Aunt Abby wants to go to nearby Newark, New Jersey to watch a street performance where a blindfolded man will find an object hidden somewhere around town. There’s a strong feeling that we’re in the earliest years of the twentieth century – that such an event would have been front page news for several days running, or that Eunice would fervently disallow her aunt to go to Newark (a city whose reputation apparently has never changed in the eyes of New Yorkers) – and yet there’s a light pulpiness to it all. The scenes in which the public magic trick takes place are the best of the novel, with an uproarious crowd surrounding a blindfolded man as he wanders for blocks before stumbling upon a seemingly impossible quarry. Perhaps there’s a sense of Rim of the Pit or Death From a Top Hat, in that the front half of the story maintains a good pace and sense of discovery by exposing the solution to a scam; in this case the street performer lets Eunice and Abby in on how the trick was accomplished – although the reasoning for revealing the trick to two random strangers seems to be purely on account of Eunice’s looks.
As the pair return home, we start to see the cracks in Eunice and Sanford’s marriage. While Eunice has access to unlimited spending accounts at all of the finest stores, her husband refuses (and I mean flat out refuses) to give her a penny for casual expenses. When Sanford winds up dead, you’ll hardly feel sorry for him, and yet that’s the same moment that you’ll stop sympathizing with Eunice.
Eunice, Sanford, and Aunt Abby share three adjoining rooms, with a single entrance separating the sleeping quarters from the rest of the apartment. The one door has some sort of automatic locking mechanism, meaning that whenever it’s shut, it automatically locks and can’t be opened from outside even with a key (which sounds like inconvenience waiting to happen). Sanford is discovered dead in his room (given the year, the couple doesn’t sleep together) by a cause unknown, leaving a situation where either Eunice or Abbey must be the killer.
“There’s no such think as a hermetically sealed room! Don’t you know what hermetically sealed means?”
So what does Eunice do? Demands to the doctor that the police aren’t called, physically attacks the police when they arrive, and refuses an autopsy or any sort of investigation into her husband’s death. You know, the kind of stuff an innocent person does when their spouse is killed. That Eunice doesn’t immediately wind up in the clink is beyond me, especially since it’s acknowledged openly by everyone that she is the one person with motive and opportunity.
Now, it turns out that Aunt Abby actually witnessed the whole murder, even going so far as to lick the killers arm (yes, you read that right), and yet somehow despite seeing, smelling, feeling, and tasting the killer (there’s a whole bit about that, believe me, I didn’t come up with it), she doesn’t identify them, even though come the end it’s revealed that she damn well should have known the character by sight.
Wells’ series detective Flemming Stone eventually arrives (he appeared in 61 of her mysteries) and immediately wins the prize for most forgettable detective. Like, I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about him. At all. Stone has a young assistant of sorts, a street urchin by the name of Fibsy McGuire. McGuire positions himself as a slack jawed fool, but is actually fairly cunning. In fact, he single handedly solves the case, although somehow in the end Flemming Stone is there to nod his head and say “oh, you figured that out too?”
The solution is pure garbage. Not that it wouldn’t work, but because it’s so stupidly obvious that you wouldn’t think someone would actually try that out as the solution to an impossible crime. It’s kind of the footprints in the snow equivalent of “the killer walked backwards”, and I guess this was 1919, and someone had to go for that solution at some point. Well, there you go: Wells did, and hopefully nobody bothered to copy it.
Anyway… yeah, I probably won’t be reading anything else by Wells, unless someone whose judgement I really respect sells me on a particular title. It’s kind of funny that the book was enjoyable enough up until the murder happened, and it’s a bad sign for a mystery when it goes downhill from there.