Thursday, September 12, 2019

Edgar Wallace’s The Daffodil Mystery

Edgar Wallace’s The Daffodil Mystery was published in 1920. While Wallace was best known for his thrillers he wrote straight murder mysteries as well and The Daffodil Mystery falls into the latter category. It also appeared under the alternative title The Daffodil Murder.

Mr Thornton Lyne is a very rich young man. He owns a very lucrative business which he inherited from his father, his own contribution to the business being negligible. He has enjoyed every advantage in life. He fancies himself as a poet although those who have have read his one small published volume of verse are inclined to disagree. He is a poseur. He is also a very unpleasant young man and he has been making himself particularly offensive to one of his female employees, a Miss Odette Rider. She has rejected his advances and since spitefulness is another of his unattractive qualities he is determined to revenge himself upon her. His idea is to engage the well-known private detective Jack Tarling to help him frame Odette for an imaginary crime. Tarling indignantly refuses.

And then Thornton Lyne gets himself murdered. His body is found, minus coat and waistcoat and wearing slippers. Most curiously a bunch of daffodils has been placed on his chest.

Scotland Yard calls on Tarling help in this case because of a curious note, written in Chinese, found on the body. Tarling had been a very successful police detective in Shanghai and he has a Chinese assistant, Ling Chu. Ling Chu is most emphatically not a servant but a colleague and is a formidable detective in his own right.

The evidence all points towards Odette’s guilt but Tarling finds her to be a charming young woman and while nothing will deflect him from the path of duty he finds himself hoping that Odette will prove to be innocent.

The plot has some of the outrageousness you expect from Wallace but in spite of its convolutions the solution is simple and makes sense. As you might expect from Ling Chu’s presence the events of the present day have links to events in the past in China.

In 1920 the idea of the fair-play mystery has not yet been formalised. Insofar as writers played fair with their readers they did so by avoiding impossibilities in the plotting and by providing a puzzle that the detective could plausibly solve based on the clues available to him, clues that were not necessarily revealed to the reader until the ending. In spite of this there is one definite clue that does point very clearly to the identity of the criminal. Unless of course (like me) you manage to miss its significance! There are multiple suspects and they’re all quite plausible. And there is an unbreakable alibi as well.

Of course being a Wallace novel it has more action than the average detective novel.

The golden age of detective fiction had scarcely even begun when The Daffodil Mystery appeared but the idea of a murderer adding some bizarre touch to the victim’s body (in this case the daffodils) was one that would be used quite often by golden age writers, notably John Dickson Carr in the wonderful The Mad Hatter Mystery and Ellery Queen in The Chinese Orange Mystery (and the latter of course has a China connection as well).

Ling Chu is quite an interesting character. He is honest, but sometimes he is honest in a misleading way. He takes care of the investigation of most of the vital physical clues including some very puzzling footprints. He’s not quite an early anticipation of Charlie Chan. He’s a lot more ruthless for one thing - he has his own ideas about the way to interrogate suspects and they’re not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes bad men try to lie to detectives but they don’t lie to Ling Chu.

Tarling also has a certain nostalgia for his earlier career in Shanghai when the rules under which policemen operated were much more flexible. Working for Scotland Yard can be a bit restrictive.

It's perhaps worth pointing out that despite the China connection and the slightly lurid cover this is not by any stretch of the imagination a Yellow Peril novel.

The Daffodil Mystery represents the slightly less outlandish side to Edgar Wallace but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.