Literary detectives are different from you and me, those haughty geniuses with photographic memory who navigate a crime scene with laser-like precision. Because they are masters of detection, we the audience are often left scrambling in the dust, unable to make sense of the mystery until the genius detective deigns to explain everything to us. So it’s quite refreshing when I encounter a mystery where the problem-solver is as clueless as the average reader. In fact, Atty. Jack Knox in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Window at the White Cat is a true bungler, prone to moments of clumsiness and self-injury.
Like many mysteries, this one starts out with a girl. Knox becomes infatuated with Margery Fleming, the distressed daughter of a missing local politician. Unfortunately for him, she’s already engaged–to a possibly sinister young man. Several things end up missing throughout the story, including a set of pearls and a spinster aunt. The mystery takes a nastier turn when a body turns up at the White Cat, a small club where seedy deals are made by politicians all the time.
The strongest point of the novel is the narrator himself. Jack Knox is witty and intelligent, but he’s obviously in over his head when it comes to criminal activity. He has a self-effacing air about him and it’s obvious from his interaction with the different minor characters that he is a very well-liked, if often indulged. His relationship with his brother and sister-in-law is particularly endearing, as is the banter between the three of them.
I’m more used the the British mystery, particularly the Golden Age sort, so this was a bit of a change for me. I liked The Window at the White Cat overall but there are several aspects of it that were problematic to me. Some of them are simply the nature of Early 20th Century mysteries, unfortunately. The reveal in the first mystery, for one, is too expository and inelegantly handled for my tastes. The second mystery is too obvious and, ahem, daffy. The number of characters involved also ends up making the narrative confusing. I often have to reread some pages to reacquaint myself with newspapermen, policemen and informers.
The Window at the White Cat is in the public domain so you can read it online on Project Gutenberg and other sites. Librivox also has an audiobook version available. Try it out if you’re looking for a comforting read.
Fun fact: Mary Roberts Rinehart is the source of two mystery cliches. She popularized the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery where the narrator constantly alludes to the ending throughout the story (this novel is a prime example). “The butler did it” also came from a Rinehart story.