First published in 1919, The Mystery of the Skeleton Key is something of an outrider for the ‘golden age’ of crime fiction that was just around the corner. Country house? Check. Intrigue above and below stairs? Check. Collective IQ of the locals only just in double figures? Absolutely. Implausible bit involving twins? Voila! All the golden age crime boxes are ticked.
A maid is murdered at a country house in Hampshire. The police investigation draws a blank; the dead woman seems to have no past, save for a single reference from a previous employer. The houseguests include Vivian Bickerdike, whose memoirs comprise some of the narrative, and the enigmatic Baron Le Sage, a mysterious chess-playing Frenchman. Suspicion first falls on the Baron’s valet before evidence stacks up against the volatile son of the house, who looks set to hang for the crime. What does the Baron know? And how does Paris figure in the story?
The story is told in a drily humorous, literary style that belies GK Chesterton’s slightly apologetic foreword. It’s no worse than The Man Who Was Thursday, which is arguably more far-fetched. Capes employs some neat narrative devices, flitting between excerpts of Bickerdike’s memoirs for the character-driven moments, the transcripts from the coroner’s court for procedural matters and straight prose for the rest. The story flows naturally between London, Hampshire and Paris and the ending really doesn’t need the ‘twins’ device, which only gets a mention because it doesn’t fit into the plot in the way we’re expected to think it will.
Probably most interesting to crime fiction enthusiasts is the Baron himself. Quixotic, charming and aloof, he is a master strategist, obviously involved in events, while still at a remove from them. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with Hercule Poirot, whose debut would follow a year later. Sadly, Bernard Capes died before The Mystery of the Skeleton Key was published, so we can only speculate whether this would have been the beginning of Le Sage’s adventures.
Before we get too maudlin about Capes or worthy about his place in literary canon, it’s worth adding that this is also a recommended read for fans of quality innuendo. Pages 60-62 alone will leave you breathless with laughter if you’re in that frame of mind, culminating in the priceless: “Miss Kennett is going to blow for me now, so you can cut along.”
Schoolboy humour aside, The Mystery of the Skeleton Key is an enjoyable read, with the coroner’s court sequences being particularly involving. It’s a fitting reminder of a writer who deserves to be much better known.