Cat’s Paw – Roger Scarlett (1931)

Ah 2018…  Pre-covid and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction corner of the universe was abuzz with the recent republishing of Murder Among the Angells by Roger Scarlett.  Put me down as one of those who lined up for a copy – well, I put it on my Christmas wish list and eventually got my hands on it – which came in the form of a two story volume along with Cat’s Paw.  And as with all of these multi-story compilations, I kind of lost track of it, simply because the bulky format doesn’t accommodate being stacked in a pile with a bunch of smaller form factor books that I plan to read next.

Out of sight is kind of out of mind when it comes to my library, and I actually forgot that I owned this.  I stumbled upon it at the base of a stack of books and realized that I still really want to read Murder Among the Angells.  Cat’s Paw comes first though, because if I don’t read it now, I’m likely to forget again that it even exists.

Cat’s Paw (damnit, I keep wanting to call it The Cat’s Paw) is a strong introduction to the female writing duo who published under the guise of Roger Scarlett.  I pretty much liked it from the start, and the pair obviously had talent if they produced this following only two prior novels (which were collected in a Volume One as part of the same Coachwhip series).  On the surface, Cat’s Paw is a Golden Age plot that you’ve read at least a dozen times, yet the authors manage to bring enough fresh trappings to it that it feels original.

A Boston millionaire lives the life of a recluse in his sprawling estate.  His only contact with the outside world are the various family members that he keeps on a tightly gripped financial leash.  The heirs can’t wait for the cruel old man to die, and when he announces plans to make severe changes to his will. that timeline gets accelerated significantly.

Yeah, if it sounds familiar, it’s because it is.  How many stories feature a country house full of relatives circling the tyrannical millionaire like vultures, with the catalyst to murder being an ill-announced will change planned for the next day?  Cat’s Paw plays it a bit different though.  Yes, the patriarch is an absolute ghoul who delights in toying with his relations, but Roger Scarlett writes a real flesh and blood human into the part typically filled by a caricature.  We’re well past midway through the story by the time the murder occurs, and in that time the character of the soon to be victim develops well beyond the trope.  And who would think that there might be a touch of sadness when the miser is finally offed?

“…all these objects of personal, sometimes romantic history, faded coldly in the light of this day to things of wood and metal, their spirits departed with him who had prized them.”

The authors also play a little twist with the notion of the will change that triggers the murder, as it comes in a very unexpected form.  That’s one of the mid-story punch lines though, so no details here.

With the murder finally accomplished, we move onto a second section of the book titled The Case.  It’s much shorter than anticipated, showing how the investigators of the case come up to speed with the events of the story so far.  The authors mercifully allow us to skip a series of interviews recapping what we already read for 100 pages, and instead focus on showing how the police stumble upon the key plot points.

The final section of the book is titled The Solution, and is prefaced with somewhat of a challenge to the reader, in which we’re assured that the case will be solved with facts that have all been presented.  Well, that’s a bit of a stretch of the truth, as a key clue that stitches everything together is withheld until the very end.

One of the disadvantages of stepping into the series midway through was not being familiar with who the sleuth would be.  I naturally assumed that the central investigator in The Case portion of the book was in fact the series detective, and got confused when chapters later there were suddenly a bunch of references to “Kane” with zero context given as to who the character was.  As I learned, Roger Scarlett’s series detective is indeed Inspector Kane, and here he plays a bit of armchair detective, coming in way late in the game to place together the pieces of evidence that were available into a form that nobody else could see.

The trick to how the murder was pulled off isn’t anything too special and I think most experienced readers will have an intuition to the core consideration.  The authors pull a few nice fakes towards the end and it’s an engaging solution with a who and a why that might surprise some readers.  I won’t exaggerate the ending by calling it shocking, but it comes close and there’s a haunting gut punch to the final pages.

Cat’s Paw come out well ahead of work by other lesser known authors that I’ve tried from the time period, and I’m solidly looking forward to finally getting to Murder Among the Angells.  You’d think that I’d follow up immediately with that read, and I did have that idea in mind, but nope, I decided to hold off a little longer.  The trick is making sure that I don’t let the book get lost under some stack in the meantime.

8 thoughts on “Cat’s Paw – Roger Scarlett (1931)”

  1. Withholding that key clue is what knocked Cat’s Paw down from a shared first-place with Murder Among the Angells to a shared second-place with In the First Degree. Yes, it’s still miles ahead of work by other lesser known mystery writers from the early 1930s.

    I recommend you read The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders before In the First Degree, because there’s an interesting contrast in how the series started and ended.

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  2. I enjoyed this for much the same reasons you did: it feels fresh despite the conceits being hoary, and the household is populated by a good mix of people communicated with a real zest in the writing. You’ll doubtless be aware of the reputation of Murder Among the Angells, and I don’t think it quite lives up to it — the opening few chapters are amazing and then it sort of shuffles on a bit too long — but hopefully you’ll find much to enjoy there, too.

    My choice of their regrettably brief oeuvre is final book In the First Degree. I thought that was superb, again cooking extremely well with many things that should be slack and flavourless from familiarity. If you can find the CW edition of that, grab it.

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    1. I recall you listing First Degree as the best of the series, and I’ll absolutely be putting that on the wish list. It was your equal footing rating between Cat’s Paw and Murder Among the Angells that led me to giving this one a try instead of skipping directly to the latter. Glad that I did.

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      1. Interesting that it’s this title which has been chosen for an American Mystery Classics reprint, too. I think it’s the right choice, but I would have expected the superior reputation of Angells to have made that a shoo-in.

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        1. Just going by reputation, Murder Among the Angells should have been first. On the other hand, the Roger Scarlett mysteries are probably best served when published and read in chronological order because their evolution as writers is an interesting one to observe. The Beacon Hill Murders and The Bay Back Murders are typical, early 1930s American mysteries following the pattern of writers like S.S. van Dine and Anthony Abbot. They found their own footing in Cat’s Paw and fully came into their own with Murder Among the Angells. Only to throw practically all of that away and start from scratch with their fifth and final mystery, In the First Degree. You can’t help but wonder what a tenth Roger Scarlett mystery would have been like.

          Yes, I know I ignored my own advise when Coachwhip reissued five novels, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’m also chronologically challenged. 😦

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          1. Ha, on the subject of being chronologically challenged I’m actually surprised that I managed to read the five Scarletts in order. Reputation and an impossible crime told me to jump straight into Angells, but seeing these two ladies develop and refine their method and process was far, far more enjoyable..even if the first book wasn’t especially strong and might have given me a moment to wonder what I was missing out on elsewhere.

            As someone who often manages to fail in following his own advice re: chronology, this little victory reminded me why I (typically) try and observe it.

            And, yeah, those sixth to tenth books would have been something great, eh?

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