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Sunday 7 May 2017

Molly Thynne (1881-1950)

The  Golden Age
Molly Thynne (1881-1950)
by Carol Westron

Mary Harriet Thynne (pronounced ‘thin’), who wrote under the name Molly Thynne, was one of the highest-born detective story writers of the Golden Age. She was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Thynne, 2nd Marquess of Bath, and also descended from the 4th Earl of Jersey and the 2nd Duke of Portland. Thynne’s father was Assistant Solicitor to His Majesty’s Customs and she was brought up in Kensington, London. Through her mother, Thynne was related to some notable artists: her maternal grandfather was the outstanding English etcher Sir Francis Seymour Haden, and James McNeill Whistler, the famous American artist, was Thynne’s great-uncle. However any contact between Whistler and Haden’s family was brought to an abrupt end after Haden condemned his brother-in-law’s dissolute life-style, and the disagreement between them culminated in a violent altercation, during which Whistler knocked Haden through a plate glass window.

During her childhood, Thynne spent a great deal of time in her grandfather’s etching studio where she met many notable artists and writers, including Rudyard Kipling and Henry James. When she was in her twenties Thynne published journal articles, and in 1914, when she was thirty-three, she published her first novel, The Uncertain Glory. Considering the cause of the rift between her grandfather and Whistler, it is amusing to note that The Uncertain Glory described the love affairs of a young artist, and had almost certainly been drawn from memories of her own family disputes. However, it seems clear that Thynne was careful to maintain the proprieties, as one reviewer assured the readers that the author had ‘not over-accentuated the Bohemian atmosphere’ and in the book the plain girl of good character triumphs over ‘the brilliant-hued coquette.’

The Uncertain Glory received good reviews but Thynne did not publish another novel for fourteen years. She was independently wealthy and never married, describing herself at the age of twenty-four as a ‘spinster.’ She spent a lot of time travelling in Europe and when in England, lived in Bovey Tracey, Devonshire. From 1928 to 1933 Thynne had a sudden spate of creative activity and produced six detective novels, which were very well received and given much critical praise. Despite this success, again she stopped writing for the final seventeen years of her life. She died in Devon in 1950.

In 1928 Thynne published Red Dwarf, which has been republished under its US title, The Draycott Murder Mystery. (This was a wise decision as the title Red Dwarf was always regarded as misleading and, in contemporary times, for many people, it conjures up the spoof, Sci-fi comedy series.) In Thynne’s book the Red Dwarf in question is a make of fountain pen, which is found near the crime scene. The crime, of course, is murder, and the prime suspect is an unfortunate young farmer, John Leslie, who discovers the body of a fashionably dressed, blonde woman in his living room. Leslie has returned from a long walk, in a howling gale, during which time he has encountered nobody who can give him an alibi. The circumstantial evidence against Leslie is very strong and he is arrested and convicted. However, fighting for him is the girl he is engaged to, Lady Cynthia Bell, whom an older female friend describes in this way: ‘“Cynthia will fight like a little tiger and come out at the end, scarred perhaps, but probably a wiser and better woman than she was before. There’s something gallant about her.”’ Cynthia enlists the help of an old friend who has recently returned from India, the eccentric but shrewd Allen ‘Hatter’ Fayre. Fayre is convinced of Leslie’s innocence and soon discovers that there are many more suspects who could have shot a woman who, in a far from blameless life, had made many enemies.

The second of Thynne’s murder mysteries, The Murder on the Enriqueta, was published in 1930. The action starts on board ship when a man is found strangled. At first it is assumed that the killing is associated with the victim’s shady activities in Beunos Aires and Detective Chief Inspector Shand, who is on board while returning to England following an extradition case, is annoyed that he cannot discover the culprit. Arriving in England, Shand encounters his old friend Jasper Mellish, who is meeting the ship to greet Lady Dalberry, a recently bereaved widow who is related by marriage to Mellish’s ward, Carol Summers. When Carol comes of age she will be one of the wealthiest women in the country. Soon it becomes clear that the danger is not confined to the Enriqueta. Somebody is in ruthless pursuit of Carol’s wealth and is willing to kill to achieve their ends.

The Murder on the Enriqueta has a clever, intricate plot and a strong, attractive and courageous heroine. When it was first published it had the unusual tribute of a review in Punch that was written in rhyme. The review is two verses long but may be summed up in the following three lines:

Unless I’m much mistaken, you will find yourself unwilling
To lay aside a yarn so crammed with situations thrilling.
(To say nothing of a villain with a gruesome taste in killing.)’

The third of Thynne’s ‘stand-alone’ detective stories was published a year later in 1930. The Case of Sir Adam Braid tells of the murder of an ill-tempered old artist in his flat in the short window of time when his manservant was out of the building. Sir Adam had just written a venomous letter disinheriting the only relation who had any kind feelings for him, his granddaughter, Jill Braid. Various witnesses had come to the door of the flat and had heard Sir Adam talking, first to a man and then a woman. Jill Braid had visited her grandfather that evening, near to the time of his death, and things look bad for her. Fortunately Jill’s father had been friends with Chief Detective Inspector Fenn of Scotland Yard and he believes in her innocence. Fenn’s friend, Dr Gilroy, who lives in the same building as Sir Adam Braid, accuses Fenn of being unduly prejudiced in Jill’s favour, until he meets her and realises that she is a honest and delightful young woman, after this he devotes himself to helping to prove her innocence.

The final three detective novels that Thynne produced feature Dr Constantine, an elderly chess master and man of the world. In The Crime at The Noah’s Ark (1931), an ill-assorted group of guests find themselves marooned by snow at the aptly named hostelry The Noah’s Ark. Most of the visitors had been en route to an expensive seaside resort for Christmas but the heavy snowfall has stranded them. The story is told from the viewpoint of young Angus Stuart, a newly rich, bestselling novelist. One of the guests is Dr Constantine, a charming old gentleman and a shrewd observer of those around him. Also staying at the inn are two elderly spinster sisters, the aristocratic Lord Romsey and his family, a drunken, boorish major, and a flamboyant, bad-tempered woman who flaunts her possession of many valuable jewels including an emerald girdle, which has grown more valuable every time it has been expanded to accommodate its owner’s growing waistline. When the emeralds are stolen and the major is murdered, the only police officer available is the dutiful but bewildered village constable. Dr Constantine, aided by Stuart and Soames (a shrewd travelling salesman and chess enthusiast) have to take on the investigation before anyone else is harmed.

In Death in the Dentist’s Chair (1932) Thynne adopts the same crime scene as Agatha Christie used some years later in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940). She centres her crime in that most fearsome of places, the dentist’s surgery. Constantine is visiting his dentist and encounters in the waiting room Sir Richard Pomfrey, the son of an old friend, and Mrs Vallon, a charming widow with whom Sir Richard is clearly in love. The dentist has gone downstairs to adjust a denture and, on his return, discovers his surgery door is locked. It seems probable that his patient is still in the surgery but she is not the sort of woman to take to imprisonment quietly or calmly. When the screws are removed from the door, his patient is discovered with her throat cut. The victim is Mrs Miller, an ex-showgirl and wife of a merchant who deals in precious jewels. To Constantine’s consternation, Mrs Miller had acrimonious past history with Sir Richard and he was absent from the room for several minutes at the time the murder was committed. Constantine joins forces with his Scotland Yard friend, Detective Inspector Arkwright, whom he met towards the end of the investigation of the murder at the Noah’s Ark hostelry. Arkwright is suspicious of Sir Richard but Constantine is certain of his friend’s innocence and is determined to prove it.

The final mystery by Thynne also features Constantine and Detective Inspector Arkwright. In He Dies and Makes No Sign (1933) Constantine is summoned by the Duchess of Steynes to help her talk sense into her son who is proposing to marry Betty Anthony, the granddaughter of an obscure violinist, Julius Anthony. When Constantine meets the girl he finds her charming and worthy of marrying the heir to a duchy and is determined to support the match. However Betty is deeply troubled because her grandfather has disappeared. Constantine calls on the aid of Arkwright to find Anthony and when the old man’s body is discovered in suspicious circumstances, their investigations lead them to uncover a dark conspiracy.

It is impossible to know why Thynne abandoned writing when her detective stories had been well received and she seemed happy with her series detective. Certainly her description of Constantine, seen through the eyes of Mrs Voller, in Death in the Dentist’s Chair, shows an attractive and vibrant character that should have been good for a long run of books. 

‘She had heard of him, of course, but, until now, they had never met. The only son of a rich Greek merchant, he had been a notable figure in London society when she was still a girl at school, partly owing to his good looks, partly to sheer force of character. He was one of the finest chess players in England, but Society recks little of the game and had this been his only claim to distinction, he would have been unknown outside the chess columns of the daily papers. As it was, it would be difficult to define the reasons for his success. “Constantine has a flair for everything,” Mrs Vallon’s shrewd old father had once said, “from cooking to Grand Opera, and his taste’s hardly ever at fault.” With the instinct of an acknowledged beauty she knew now that this flair extended to pretty women and that, as he faced her, his dark eyes ablaze with a vitality disconcerting in so old a man, he was appreciating her to the full. With the frankness that was part of her charm she returned the compliment. Beside Constantine’s clear-cut, olive-skinned features, a trifle fine-drawn now with age, surmounted by the still thick, virile white hair, Sir Richard’s florid good looks seemed blunted and coarsened.’

It is true that in the final book Constantine sometimes mentions his age and expresses weariness with the ‘game’ of detection. For him the solving of crime has been partly to help out a friend but mainly the joy of solving a puzzle. In a similar attitude to that of another wealthy, high-born, amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, Constantine enjoys the game but struggles with the consequences of unmasking a killer. He explains this to Arkwright in He Dies and Makes No Sign: ‘“ All the same, whenever you drag me into one of your unsavoury messes there comes a moment when I realize that the problem is not a chess problem after all, and that the pieces are not chessmen, but human beings. I wish, then, that I’d stuck to my own game and left you to play yours.”... Constantine’s elation seemed to have left him, and he sounded tired and disheartened.’ Despite Constantine’s protestations, it seems probable that he would be unable to resist a fresh investigative challenge, if one was offered to him; especially as his devoted manservant, Manners, who appears in the last two books, has also become interested in helping his master investigate and is delighted when Constantine sends him out to track down clues.

Thynne’s books are well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable. She is meticulously fair in planting clues. They are all set in the upper echelons of society, the world that Thynne knew well, and it must be admitted, as with so many books of the period, there is an intrinsic vein of snobbery that runs through her work and a tendency to caricature the working class. Respectable working class people are usually shown as admirable servants, working class villains are savage and vicious, and those in less than respectable employment, like gigolos, are portrayed as weak-willed, posturing and cowardly. Most of Thynne’s books have an older, cultivated man as a mentor, who helps investigate the crime and all the novels have a love affair but this is usually on the periphery of the story. There is a tendency for the more ‘sympathetic’ villain to die at the end of the book, which saves the unpleasantness of a trial and execution and means that embarrassing facts do not have to be made public. Thynne’s books fall into the category that today would be described as ‘cosy’ but they are none the worse for that. In fact, allowing for differences in the period and attitudes, which you get in most Golden Age books, they are all very enjoyable reads.

It is clear that whatever other authors Thynne read, she knew her Agatha Christie. There are references to The Big Four (1927) and Murder on the Links (1923) thrown casually into her books, as well as a reference to Belgians who had come to Britain as refugees during the First World War and remained afterwards.

It seems probable that Thynne also read Dorothy L. Sayers. Certainly there is an interesting resemblance between Dian de Momerie, the aristocratic socialite who is ruining herself with drink, drugs and wild living, in Sayers’ Murder  Must Advertise (1933), and the woman who appears at a fashionable restaurant towards the end of Thynne’s He Dies and Makes No Sign. ‘The swing-doors opened again, letting in a chill blast of air, this time to admit another larger party, even more clamorous than the first. It was headed by a tall, almost incredibly slender woman, whose hair, even apart from the vivid, shimmering green dress in which she was literally sheathed, would have made her conspicuous in any gathering. It was of that rare shade, real auburn, and it crowned her curious, arresting face like a gorgeous halo. Even Arkwright, whose imagination was not easily stirred, was reminded of a maenad leading her Bacchanalian rout.’

It is strange that a writer who critics described as equal to Christie should have been so totally forgotten, but it seems probably that Thynne, having built up her detective story readership, simply gave up and, without new
stories, the readers gave up on her. Unlike the wealthy American artist and writer Margaret Armstrong, Thynne does not seem to have been driven to lifelong creative activity. And, unlike Christie and Sayers, she had no
financial constraints to write more books, which is a pity as her detective books are very pleasurable reads.

Molly Thynne’s six detective novels have been reprinted as paperbacks and are also available on Kindle.

The Draycott Murder Mystery
Published by Dean Street Press.  ISBN: 978-1911413516. ASIN: B01KQ0ZIEQ

The Murder on the Enriqueta
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911413530. ASIN: B01KQ317RA

The Case of Sir Adam Braid
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911413554. ASIN: B01KQ31BR6

The Crime at The Noah’s Ark
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911413578. ASIN: B01KQ3TKDS

Death in the Dentist’s Chair
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911413592. ASIN: B01KQ4XVRS

He Dies and Makes No Sign
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911413615. ASIN: B01KQ4Y3VG

 Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016. Read a review of Carol’s latest book

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