“Marjoribanks’s head rose over the sill, and there it stopped. By chance he had put the ladder against Danford’s bedroom. Looking in, he saw a big, pleasant room, a bed not far from the window, and on the bed, lying with its face turned towards him, its terrible face turned towards him…”
Since the time of the Viking invasions, the Farthing estate has been in the possession of the Rivers and Danford families, which have run in parallel over the centuries, interconnected by various marriages. The current owner, Edgar Danford, purchased Farthing from its previous owner, Colonel Rivers, after Rivers fell into serious financial difficulties; subsequently, he committed suicide. The other occupants of Farthing are Edgar’s somewhat younger second wife, Ivory; his composer brother, Harold; and Pippa Hood, his step-daughter from his first marriage. Also living in a cottage on the grounds is Beaufoy Rivers, the son of Colonel Rivers, who acts as land agent for the estate. Famous for its paintings and its collection of relics, Farthing is everything an ancient estate should be. It even has a family curse.
Learning by chance that a man on the train with her is Chief-Inspector Pointer of Scotland Yard, Ivory Danford impulsively consults him about a strange situation in her home. Legend dictates that if the wild laugh of an ancestor, who was burned at the stake as a heretic, is heard three times, it heralds a violent death for the property’s owner – and the laugh has now been heard twice, by independent witnesses. Pointer is intrigued but declines to get involved, contending that it is not really a matter for the police. He gives Mrs Danford the name of a private investigator, Stephen Marjoribanks, who like Pointer finds the story interesting, but hardly takes it seriously. Marjoribanks fobs off his potential client with the excuse of another case, but with that case wrapping up more quickly than expected and his conscience troubling him just a little, he decides to call upon Ivory Danford and look into the business – and is thus on the spot when, after the third laugh has been heard, Edgar Danford is found dead, murdered, in an old converted stone tower that has been locked and sealed from the inside, with no second person present…
From its unexpected opening, with the suggestion of a supernatural force intruding into a very matter-of-fact depiction of family life, albeit amongst the wealthy, A. Fielding’s 1929 publication The Mysterious Partner manages, in an unhurried and somehow ineffably British manner, to spiral outwards so as to encompass not just an ancient curse, but murder, industrial espionage, fraud, embezzlement, impersonation, a fire, a plane crash, a missing will, a possible adulterous affair, secret underground chambers, a number of disappearances, and a variation on the locked-room mystery.
Over time, the novel’s title grows increasingly ambiguous: there are at least four people to whom it could apply; Mark Ormsby, for instance, who has just bought into Edgar Danford’s business, and for whom Pippa Hood has just rejected the attractive but rather unstable Beaufoy Rivers. Mark was always “terribly fond” of Pippa, of course – but somehow he never got around to proposing until he caught an accidental glimpse of Danford’s will, and learned of his intention to leave Farthing to Pippa and her husband. Then there’s Rivers himself, financially backed by Danford in some top-secret aviation research, which a great many people would like to get their hands on.
And even Rivers has a partner of sorts in the shape of Henry Jackson-Gupp, engaged in the same line of research as he and with seemingly impeccable credentials – and a tendency to appear and disappear at the oddest times. The most overtly “mysterious” of the various partners, however, is Digby Cox, a silent partner in Danford’s business who has apparently been drawing money from it under false pretences; who everybody recognises, thanks to his red hair and beard and glasses, but who nobody seems to actually know; who reports Danford’s murder to the police and then vanishes without trace, although there seems no way that he could have left Farthing without being seen…
And what are we to make of the behaviour of Ivory Danford, who in the wake of the third supernatural laugh leaves not merely Farthing, but England, sending back a letter boasting of a love affair that could never have happened? Or that of Beaufoy Rivers, who claims that he heard the three laughs before his own father’s suicide, and who is seen doffing his hat to the portrait of Sir Amyas Rivers, who gave up his wife to be burned alive rather than lose his estate – a ritual that tradition dictates is carried out by the owner of Farthing…?
Although a mystery and a detective story, The Mysterious Partner is not really a “whodunit”. Throughout, the police are privy to information that the reader is not, and so while it is possible to form a theory about the identity of the killer or killers, a full explanation is necessarily beyond the reader’s capabilities. That said, Fielding does do an extremely good job of distracting the attention from the plot details that really matter, so unless you’re paying minute attention, by the end you may not even have a proper theory, let alone the rest. The building complication of the story – ultimately there are at least three different mysteries developing in parallel, and occasionally overlapping – gives the novel a kind of Chinese puzzle-box structure, where the challenge is to divide plot-thread from plot-thread, and to place the characters correctly.
The Mysterious Partner is also the kind of mystery that depends very much upon its geography for its solution: Fielding spends quite some time upon the descriptions of Farthing, and the relative placements of its different sections and rooms. This made it rather hard going for me, as I tend to struggle with that kind of thing. This is not, I emphasise, at all a criticism of the novel itself – although it may serve as a warning for anyone who is, like myself, at all spatially challenged.
It was, I gather, A. Fielding’s way to support the professional against the amateur – somewhat against the British tradition. There are some nice passages in the book that speak admiringly of the advanced technology available to the police force, particularly by way of transport. A desperate chase finds Pointer behind the wheel of, “The Yard’s fastest car…a British Mercedes Benz, 36-220 h.p., a Grand Prix sports supercharger model, as yet invincible on the road…” Earlier, Pointer flies cross-country from the site of the mail robbery he’s been investigating to Farthing: “By train it would have taken half a day, by car a good two hours to get across country to Norbury, but Pointer’s Blue Bird flew it in under thirty minutes.” The point is made that Pointer – representing the police – is the very model of the modern Man Of Action. (And as it turns out, he once represented England at soccer—sorry, football.) But Pointer is also a thinker, and a man with a great belief in the scientific expertise of the Yard’s forensic investigators. The elucidation of the crime – or rather, the elucidation of the role played by a particular individual in the events surrounding the crime – rests upon footprint identification and soil analysis.
Beside Pointer, the amateur detective so beloved of English novelists doesn’t stand much of a chance. Here, the character of Stephen Marjoribanks functions primarily as a foil for the Chief-Inspector, the latter cool, logical and reasoning, the former tending to follow his instincts. Which is not so say that Marjoribanks is always wrong; he’s just not right as often as Pointer, and we become wary of relying upon his deductions. And speaking of instincts, the following passage is perhaps the only moment in the novel when you might guess the sex of its author:
“Woman’s intuition is a wonderful thing!” agreed Boodle.
“Any intuition is a wonderful thing!” corrected Marjoribanks.