Murder Among the Angells – Roger Scarlett (1932)

Rewind to 2017 and Golden Age mystery fans were abuzz about finally getting their hands on Murder Among the Angells; a revered classic in Japan that somehow wallowed in obscurity throughout the rest of the world.  And what’s not to get excited about?  A mansion with a unique floor plan, nine maps, a bizarre will, and an impossible crime to top it all off.  I was pumped to read it, and so I immediately purchased it, and then let it rot in my TBR pile for nearly six years.

Well, that last part is because I always lose track of stories in these multi-novel collections, and Murder Among the Angells comes in the form of a twofer from Coachwhip Publications alongside Cat’s Paw.  Due to stacking issues, I end up stashing these bigger books somewhere else and then forget I have them.  Anyways, I finally got around to reading Cat’s Paw last year, and I’ve been eager to get back to Roger Scarlett ever since.

Cat’s Paw has some parallels with Murder Among the Angells (damnit, I keep wanting to write “amongst”) in that we have a Boston mansion populated by a cast of relatives eager for their looming inheritance.  This time it’s two families occupying a single mansion, and they’re not so concerned about the wills of each of their aging patriarchs, but rather a will that has already been executed over fifty years earlier.  Their health-obsessed grandfather, in an effort to push his two sons towards a life of rigor, stipulated that his entire inheritance would be passed down to the offspring of whichever son dies last.  The once close brothers find themselves compelled into a lifelong competition of outlasting each other.  The fractured relationship leads to them dividing the mansion down the middle by walling each other off, with the exception of an elevator that serves both sides of the house.  Yeah, now I have a sense for where architecture obsessed Eastern puzzles like Death in the House of Rain and Murder in the Crooked House come from…

The unique floor plan complimented by the connecting elevator make for some fun possibilities in a murder mystery, and murder does inevitably raise its head as one of the brothers gets knocked off.  Enter Inspector Kane, Scarlett’s series detective, to investigate.  Kane only showed up towards the end of Cat’s Paw, but this time he’s a constant force in the story.  Observe the way that he immediately sees through a misdirection planted by the killer, and it’s touches like that employed by Scarlett that give the story of sense of progress throughout.

Now, the murder that I alluded to isn’t the actual impossible crime that gives this story its reputation.  That comes way later in the book, and given that it’s well past the midway point, I won’t go into too much detail.  I will reveal that it involves someone being stabbed to death while alone in an elevator, because I came into the book with that knowledge and it created a sense of tension whenever the elevator came into play throughout the story.  It’s a solid impossibility with a unique solution, and my one complaint is that Scarlett didn’t go far enough to communicate just how impossible the circumstances were.  A few illustrations would have helped sell the puzzle even more, although the solution will stand out in my mind for years to come regardless.

Speaking of illustrations, yes, there are nine diagrams in the book, mostly floor plans.  Coachwhip fumbles a bit in that they place almost all of the floor plans towards the very end of the story, whereas it would have been really helpful to see them earlier.  And it’s not that the floor plans are being shown in context of the story – well, a few are – but some of them just feel jammed into a random page because they’ve got to go somewhere.  Stick the four main floor plans towards the start of the book and it would really elevate the read.

It hardly needs elevating though because it’s a total page turner.  I didn’t want to put the book down during the second half, and the very ending is absolutely riveting.  I was able to see through the ploy used by Inspector Kane to flush out the killer, which enabled me to figure out the killer’s identity with absolute certainty about 15 pages early.  It was a gripping 15 pages though, and I was surprised by who the culprit was even when I stumbled to it early.  The motive was just as surprising. Even though I had everything necessary to piece it together, I would have never seen it. Just as Cat’s Paw lingers in the memory for a bit of an emotional punch in the end, the motive in Murder Among the Angells lingers due to a delightful double edge that Kane points out.

Both Roger Scarlett novels in this collection have been excellent, but Murder Among the Angells wins out.  It’s a shame it didn’t receive wider praise until recently, as it’s miles better than most books gracing the likes of the Lacourbe list of top impossible crimes.  And now I’m going to have to buy the three remaining Scarlett stories: another two-pack plus a standalone.  I’ve heard In the First Degree is the best, and since that’s the standalone, I’ll probably go there next.

6 thoughts on “Murder Among the Angells – Roger Scarlett (1932)”

  1. I think I anticipated great things for this one a little too keenly, because I remember loving the first third or so and then being a little underwhelmed with the rest. The elevator murder is superb, however, and it’s a really fun time watching the cast contort themselves in the manner of such classic era casts. You only have to look at the likes of Murder at Black Oaks by Phillip Margolin to see how turgid this kind of thing can be when done badly, and that’s enough to make me appreciate this a little more in retrospect.

    ” I’ve heard In the First Degree is the best…” — yeah, but that’s only my opinion 🙂 Everyone else seems to think that the authors peak here, so perhaps temper your enthusiasm a little.


    1. I had six years to temper the expectations, plus I remember your review not being overly enthusiastic. As such I went into this one hoping for something a little better than Cat’s Paw, and got a bit more than that. And hey, how rare is it to find a well written British-style mystery from American authors?


      1. “…how rare is it to find a well written British-style mystery from American authors?”

        Oh, man, wait ’til you discover Craig Rice…


  2. This will probably sound ominous to some, but I mostly agree with Jim on In the First Degree. I rank it ever so slightly below Murder Among the Angells and the contrast between how the series started and ended is very interesting. It makes you wonder what direction a tenth Roger Scarlett mystery might have taken.


    1. I forget everything I ever read about In the First Degree, and so I’ll be able to walk into that one not knowing what to expect. And yeah, consider that Carr’s fifth novel was Poison in Jest (and his publishing timeline pretty much running in parallel with Scarlett), and it’s like he was barely getting started. Imagine if the Roger Scarlett duo had kept things going.


  3. Glad to hear you really enjoyed this one. Since I had such a great experience with Cat’s Paw, it’s good knowing that the last two Kane mysteries outperform it. The elevator murder especially intrigues me too; I’ve been feverish for more locked elevator impossibilities ever since Death and the Conjuror.


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