Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hand in the Dark

Arthur J. Rees’ The Hand in the Dark was published in 1920. It’s a little-known but interesting example of the golden age detective novel.

Arthur J. Rees (1872-1942) was born in Australia but relocated to England when in his early twenties. He worked as a newspaperman and according to some sources also for a time for the Metropolitan Police. he was the author of many mystery novels.

It is in most ways a typical English country house murder mystery. The Heredith family has lived for generations in a moated house dating to the 17th century. They came into possession of their estate during the English Civil War, in rather violent circumstances. One of their ancestors allegedly burnt the original house to the ground, with its Royalist owner inside. As a result there is believed to be a curse on the Heredith family.

In 1918 the house is occupied by Sir Philip Heredith, his unmarried sister and his son and heir, known generally as Phil. Phil’s new wife also lives there, although not very happily. Mrs Heredith is used to the excitement of London and finds country life to be unbearably done. A house party has been arranged to cheer her up. The house party ends in murder.

There are a number of possible suspects but since all the guests were having dinner at the time of the murder they all appear to have perfect alibis. As luck would have it a Scotland Yard man, Detective Caldew, happens to be staying with his own family in the village. The ambitious young detective sees this as his great opportunity to make a name for himself but it soon becomes apparent that the case is beyond him. At first it also seems to be beyond Detective Superintendent Merrington who has been called in from the Yard to take charge.

Merrington eventually solves the case and an arrest is made. But has the case really been  solved? Phil Heredith does not believe it has and employs the famed private detective Grant Colwyn to investigate further.

Colwyn finds that several vital clues have been overlooked, the most important being that the famous Heredith pearls are missing. Superintendent Merrington’s case is based on the assumption that the motive for the murder was jealousy but this new information suggests that robbery may have been the real motive, a circumstance that casts serious doubt on the Crown’s case against the accused.

In a golden age detective novel you expect a fiendishly complex plot and the book certainly delivers on that score. The eventual solution to the murder is delightfully ingenious.

In fact the identity of the murderer could have been deduced by psychological means, which is undoubtedly how a Hercule Poirot would have approached it. The problem with such a psychological approach is that it would not have explained how the murder was committed and it would have had the further disadvantage of running up against a cast-iron alibi. Grant Colwyn has no interest in psychology. His method is based on a painstaking and methodical accumulation of evidence and a dogged determination to chase up every possible lead. This approach might take longer but it does provide Colwyn with the vital evidence needed to build an unshakeable case. 

Having three detectives all trying to solve the case more or less individually is an interesting touch. Even more interesting is that Rees shows us how the personality of the detective can impact on his investigation and how this can often lead him astray.

Rees has a straightforward but rather pleasing prose style, another factor in the book’s favour.

If you enjoy detective novels that rely on unbreakable alibis that somehow have to 
be broken by the unravelling of a fantastically complicated murder then you should have a great deal of fun with this novel. In fact if you’re a fan of golden age detective stories in general you will find that this one ticks all the right boxes. Highly recommended.


  1. Some of Rees early books have a laborious prose style. This is one of them. I never finished it when I first tried to read it years ago. I've read three of Rees’ books to completion and I think THE SHRIEKING PIT is one of his best among his pure detective novels. It shares an amazing similarity to TRENT'S LAST CASE in many of the plot points. If you can find a copy of …PIT I recommend you read that one as well.

  2. Many, if not all, of Rees's books are available for download from many free ebook sites, as they're old enough to be public domain.

  3. This was a great read. Found its humour most refreshing.

  4. Just finished this and thoroughly enjoyed it. I marginally preferred The Shrieking Pit, but this is a very solid read.