I always appreciate an author who experiments with structure, one who is not content to merely deliver the same type of story again and again. (I am, after all, a great champion of Gladys Mitchell, who showed remarkable variety in tone and tale in her work from her first two decades.) Here Martin Edwards approaches his plot and progression differently than the way he built Gallows Court. For one thing, there is a more deliberate incorporation of the Golden Age of Detection elements that the author knows so well. This mystery more closely resembles the genre structure we are familiar with: one initial murder (whose victim Rachel speaks with right before his death) followed by others, a loose group of suspects, a trail of clues both obvious and oblique, and a gathering-of-suspects stormy-night climax where the detective accuses individuals of minor crimes before revealing who committed the major one. Where Gallows Court felt like a galloping thriller with mysteries to be solved, Mortmain Hall reverses the emphasis, so much so that Edwards provides an enjoyable end-of-book tool called a Cluefinder, a list of details and accompanying page numbers to show how evidence from prose dialogue and description could lead a perceptive reader to the solution.
I enjoyed too Mortmain's main character from a plot-driving sense, the enigmatic, masculine, and mischievous Leonora Dobell. She is the figure who contrives to put the cat among the pigeons, and she also adds Rachel Savernake to her list of unpunished killers. Leonora publishes her crime reporting under a male pseudonym – this is still 1930s London – and Edwards explores the gay demimonde of the time and place, as well as the sense of shame and fear should the secret come out and ruin reputations. There is, too, a cataclysm at the climax where nature steps in to deliver justice and destruction like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, and I find great satisfaction in such a conspiracy of elements and author.
When the storm clouds clear, though, Mortmain Hall for me is less engaging than its predecessor. This has to do with the roles Edwards' two series characters are assigned here. While Rachel speaks with the story's initial victim, a man in hiding who returns not quite incognito to attend his mother's funeral and in so doing speeds along his own, it is reporter Jacob (and Rachel's faithful family servant Trueman) who does the leg work and much of the surmising. It is also Jacob who, around the story's halfway point, gets framed for murder and must work his way out of the derelict room that houses him and a corpse. This he does, and it came as a surprise that it was Rachel and not Jacob who assumes the role of end-of-book detective, tracing the many paths and crossroads that provide the answers to Who, How, and Why for crimes ancient and recent. For Rachel Savernake here seems largely a reactive figure until that moment. This is because the burning enigma that drives the reader's fascination in Gallows Court – is she a murderer, and if so, is she justified? – is answered in that story and consequently the character's persona is on a very low flame in this book.
Due partly to this, which makes the involvement of both Savernake and Flint in this case academic and impersonal rather than emotional and of high stakes to each, the crime plot and secondary characters of Mortmain Hall felt more distanced and less urgent for me. Even Jacob escapes that crime-scene bedsit within a dozen pages, so any chance of a recurring personal danger is minimized and pressure is no longer on him as it would be were he still a Person of Interest by the police. The irony is, had this been a standalone tale, or had I read this book before Gallows Court, I would not be aware of two strong characters from a previous story looking from the outside in and thus undercutting their potential. Granted, it is because the author put this duo through its paces so well in their first adventure that the characters' once-removed positions here seem lacking.
The above criticisms are (obviously) my subjective thoughts on narrative structure and character activation. Let me note that there is much I enjoyed while visiting Mortmain Hall, including the author's typically taut and energetic pacing and an abundance of primary and secondary mysteries to be solved. These elements should keep, and have kept, many detective fiction fans and amateur and professional reviewers enthralled: see Kate at crossexaminingcrime, The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and the starred review from Publishers Weekly. And JJ at The Invisible Event has a podcast where he and Edwards discuss the book and the author's many influences and achievements.
I can also say without reservation that I look forward to the next Flint/Savernake story! Mortmain Hall has already been available to lucky UK readers, and will be released to US mystery fans via the great Poisoned Pen Press on September 22. I received an advanced reading copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.