Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Dark House, by George Manville Fenn - 1885

The Dark House: A Knot Unravelled
By George Manville Fenn

Oh, we get to know a little, sir. We're a body of incompetent men that every one abuses, but we find out a few things a year. (Inspector Linnett)

A printer, publisher and editor of magazines, George Manville Fenn later became a prolific writer of children's books, social commentary and more. It wouldn't be completely off the mark to call The Dark House mystery fiction, since there is a mystery at the heart of it, but for my money it proceeds more in the manner of a gothic than a whodunit.

As the story opens we're presented with the tried and true convention of relatives and concerned parties gathering at the so-called dark house for the reading of the will of one Colonel Capel. A very wealthy fellow, the colonel spent a great deal of time abroad, particularly in India, and amassed a big old heap of treasures, curiosities and whatnot. He constructed a sturdy vault in his home where he stored his wealth. Following his death that wealth was to be distributed to his heirs with the vault becoming his tomb.

Not everyone is happy with the provisions of the will, with the main exception being Capel's great-nephew Paul, who winds up with most of the loot. Before long one of the footmen is found dead in the colonel's room, as is Capel's trusted and loyal "Hindoo" servant. Shortly thereafter the vault is opened and the treasure is found to be missing.

Which is where things start to go a bit astray. At this point in the proceedings the reader of mystery fiction is conditioned to expect an amateur detective or police inspector to come upon the scene and work their magic. And while there are various police officers and inspectors roaming about they don't seem to do much and things are made right at the end in spite of their efforts rather than because of them. As for the (temporary) members of the household who had gathered for the reading of the will they seem content to roam around, sleepwalk, bicker and wring their hands to no real purpose.

All of which makes it sound like I didn't like this book much, but I wouldn't go quite that far. Fenn actually does a great job, especially early on in the book, of creating a creepy atmosphere. Given that I'm a big fan of old dark house type stuff that counts for a lot with me. So while I can't recommend this one unreservedly, I'd go so far as to give it perhaps one thumb up, with the aforementioned caveats in mind.