Henrietta Hamilton is an author I discovered recently through Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series. Hamilton (a pseudonym of Hester Denne Shepherd) had four novels published between 1956 and 1959, all featuring the crime-solving husband and wife team of Johnny and Sally Heldar. I have read two of them – Answer in the Negative, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, and The Two Hundred Ghost, which I did. When I was given the opportunity to read The Man Who Wasn’t There, I assumed it was another of the four books, but I quickly discovered that the circumstances behind the publication of this novel are more intriguing.
After Hamilton’s death in 1995, her nephews found some typed manuscripts of thirteen books that had never been published in her lifetime – including several more Sally and Johnny mysteries. This is one of them, made available at last by Agora Books. As one of the author’s nephews suggests in the introduction, it may have been changing tastes in literature that led to his aunt’s books no longer being published; by the late 1950s the Golden Age of detective fiction was largely over and The Man Who Wasn’t There does feel like a book written a decade or two earlier.
Johnny and Sally Heldar are a young married couple who run an antiquarian bookshop and are gaining a reputation for themselves as amateur detectives. Therefore, when Johnny’s cousin Tim discovers that his fiancée, Prue, is involved in a murder case, he turns to Johnny and Sally for help. Prue had been working as secretary to the murdered man, Mr Frodsham, who has been found shot dead in his study and Prue herself has become one of the suspects. Tim is hoping the Heldars can prove her innocent – and it certainly seems that there are plenty of other people with motives, including Frodsham’s mistress and her husband, another woman he was blackmailing, and some old enemies from his days in the French Resistance.
I like Sally and Johnny and it was nice to spend some more time in their company (although I do wish Johnny would let his wife take a more active part in the investigations), but I found the plot of this particular novel a bit too complicated and detailed for such a short book. I struggled to keep track of all the characters, what time they arrived at or left the victim’s house, what they were all doing during the war, even the number of different guns involved. Most of this information is delivered in the form of long conversations as Johnny and Sally ‘think out loud’ to each other or interview suspects, so you also need to remember who said what and to whom. Still, I think Hamilton was fair to the reader and gave us all the clues we needed to be able to solve the mystery.
I probably won’t read any more books in this series as I’ve tried three now and only really enjoyed one of them, but I can see from looking at other reviews that lots of people love her books so I hope the rest of the unpublished manuscripts find their way into print very soon.
Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.