The Rose of Death – Walter Masterman (1934)

I vaguely recall reading several reviews of stories by Walter Masterman, but the only thing that sticks out in my mind is that a post about The Wrong Letter over at The Invisible Event seemed interesting enough that I jotted it down for my “maybe buy this” list.  And yet, when I browsed the respectable library of Masterman’s books available from Ramble House, I was too taken in by alluring titles like The Yellow Mistletoe and The Rose of Death.  I mean, you don’t judge a book by its cover, you judge it by its name, right?

The descriptions of Masterman’s novels tread the line between mystery and horror, and reading the blurbs for the books that I have left me thinking that I might wind up in HP Lovecraft country, so I went with the one that sounded the most mystery-ish.  And here I am with The Rose of Death.

It’s a strange tale to be sure.  A policeman walking his beat bumps into a man with a freshly sawn off hand.  The victim oddly doesn’t seem too concerned about the situation, but bleeds to death before reaching the hospital.  The doctor on duty happens to be a member of an underground detective club, and he shares the details of the strange case with his friends: a newspaper reporter and a well todo nephew of a famous sleuth from Scotland Yard.  The trio poke about at the mystery, bring a fourth member into the fold, and end up on a bizarre and increasingly dangerous quest to unveil the truth.

On a chapter for chapter basis, The Rose of Death is just about everything that I’m looking for in a British mystery.  But man, string twenty of those chapters together, and this is a bizarre meandering tale.  It’s a collection of interesting and exciting incidents experienced jointly and individually by four characters, and yet from a mystery point of view, it lacks a sense of purpose.  This is a story that features elements of suspense and mystery and that coziness of the best British Golden Age writing, but it isn’t what I suspect you and I are looking from one of these reads.  Skip directly to the last twenty or so pages for the denouement and you probably experience the same amount of intrigue and satisfaction as someone who read the previous 190.

And that’s such an unfortunate criticism, because there’s some great comfort reading here.  See spunky Betty Millard worm her way into the membership of the all male murder club while outwitting her puritan uncle who thinks she’s setting aside frivolities by joining a literary study group.  Ensconce yourself in the country estate of Sheering Manor, where famous detective Sir Arthur Sinclair lives a mysterious hermit life.  Any of the individual scenes in The Rose of Death is very much why I read this genre, and yet this isn’t the type of fair play mystery that I’m looking for at the core.  This is a comfortable ride where you’re shown the scenery as it passes before you, but it isn’t much more than that.

Still, those were some fun sights to see, and I’ll be reading a few more of Masterman’s novels in the future for sure.  There are a lot of authors for Masterman to contend with though, and my “to buy” list is going to be favoring the next entries by Locked Room International, Pushkin Vertigo, and finishing off authors like Norman Berrow.  We’ll see when I get to Masterman again.

5 thoughts on “The Rose of Death – Walter Masterman (1934)”

  1. I read The Wrong Letter and found it quite similar to what you’ve described. There were loads of individual pleasures, but the elements were disjointed–not much building off of what came before. The worst element was a romance that made no sense in the final scheme of things. I can’t say it was bad, but (like you) I have no desire to return to Masterman any time soon.

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      1. Great in the presentation stage, disappointing in the solution stage. It’s described one way when it happens and then another way at the end. There were several points while reading when I forgot it even had an impossible crime.

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  2. It’s a collection of interesting and exciting incidents experienced jointly and individually by four characters, and yet from a mystery point of view, it lacks a sense of purpose

    This makes it sound like The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars…!

    Masterman represents a compelling conundrum to me: he’s probably forgotten for a reason, like most forgotten authors, and yet there are aspects of his work (the overall scheme of The Wrong Letter, the otherworldines of The Border Line, the juggling complications of The Perjured Alibi) that compel him. Like you, I’ll be returning to him on account of the fascination his work seems to have cast upon me, but also like you I dunno how soon that’s likely to be. Lulu might need to bring their prices down a bit before I’m ready to leap back into the Masterverse again.

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    1. Yeah, the price point for these definitely relegates these to the Christmas/birthday wishlist, since they’re more of an enjoyable curiosity. You’ve got to give me something of the Paul Halter/Norman Berrow variety to fork over that kind of money.

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