The Man Who Wasn’t There by Henrietta Hamilton

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.

The Two Hundred Ghost by Henrietta Hamilton

I read my first Henrietta Hamilton novel, Answer in the Negative, earlier this year and wasn’t particularly impressed by it; I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read any more of her books, but I believe in giving an author a second chance and The Two Hundred Ghost sounded very tempting. I’m glad I gave it a try as I enjoyed it much more than Answer in the Negative.

The Two Hundred Ghost was first published in 1956 and is the first book in Hamilton’s Johnny and Sally Heldar mystery series. The unusual title refers to 200 Charing Cross Road, the address of the antiquarian bookshop in London which is owned by Johnny Heldar’s family and said to be haunted by a ghost. Sally Merton is one of the booksellers in the shop; she is not yet married to Johnny when we first meet her and has been attracting some unwelcome attention from one of the male employees, Victor Butcher. Mr Butcher is an unpleasant bully, disliked by everybody who knows him, so when he is found dead in his office with a knife in his back, there are plenty of suspects…including the ghost, which is sighted in the building shortly before the murder takes place!

This is a very short novel and the plot moves along at a steady pace, making it a quick and easy read; although, as with the other Hamilton novel I read, I felt that there was a bit of repetition surrounding discussions of alibis, timing of events and layouts of rooms, this one has a better balance between these technical aspects of mystery-solving and the more ‘human’ aspects, such as motives and personalities. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but I don’t think the author was unfairly holding back information from the reader and it may have been possible to solve the mystery if you were paying more attention than I was and didn’t miss any clues!

Henrietta Hamilton (a pseudonym of Hester Denne Shepherd) worked in a London bookshop in the years following World War II and had personal experience of selling antiquarian books, which gives the novel a feeling of authenticity. Bookselling is not just a background to the novel, but an important part of the plot, and the author’s knowledge and interest in ‘incunabula’ (early printed books) comes through very strongly.

I was pleased to find that Sally plays a bigger part in the investigations in this book than she did in Answer in the Negative and makes some important discoveries which prove to be turning points in the mystery – although, remembering that it was written in the 1950s, there’s always a sense that Johnny feels the need to protect her because she’s a woman. Still, both Johnny and Sally are characters who are easy to like and to care about; it was nice to get to know them before they were married and to see their relationship develop (although it does so quite subtly and their romance is only one small part of the story). Having enjoyed this book, I would like to meet the Heldars again – luckily, there are another two books in the series and I’m hoping they will be reissued soon too!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton

It’s good to see so many forgotten authors of crime fiction being brought back into print by various publishers recently. Henrietta Hamilton is another one I had never heard of until I came across Answer in the Negative, originally published in 1959 and now available as part of Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Set in the world of 1950s journalism, the novel follows husband and wife detective team Johnny and Sally Heldar, who are called in by their friend, Toby Lorn, to investigate a case of poison pen letters and practical jokes. Toby runs a newspaper cuttings agency in London’s Fleet Street, providing archived photographs to writers and publishers, and it is one of his assistants, Frank Morningside, who is the target of the nasty letters. Johnny and Sally quickly discover that there is no shortage of suspects as Morningside is disliked by so many of the other archive workers, but before they have time to identify the culprit, Morningside is found dead in the doorway of his office, having been hit on the head by a box of heavy glass negatives. Suddenly the Heldars find themselves investigating a murder case, but can they stop the murderer before he or she kills again?

Answer in the Negative is a short book and kept me entertained for a day or two, but it’s not one of the better ‘forgotten crime novels’ I’ve been reading lately. It got off to a promising start, but quickly became bogged down with repetitive discussions of alibis and lists of who was where at what time. I know other readers enjoy that sort of mystery more than I do, so it’s really just a matter of personal taste. The characterisation didn’t seem very strong either, which is a problem in a book where so many characters are introduced in a short space of time. Johnny and Sally themselves are likeable enough but they are no Tommy and Tuppence and I found the dialogue between them quite wooden. Their partnership is not a very equal one and it’s quite clear that Johnny is regarded as the detective and Sally as just his helper, but I was pleased to see that she does occasionally go off and have adventures of her own – even if Johnny isn’t very happy about it!

I did find the setting interesting and enjoyed the little insights we are given into 1950s life; it was particularly fascinating to see what was involved in archiving and the use of photographs in books and newspapers in an era before computers and digital images made everything available at our fingertips. For some reason, though, the constant references to ‘pix’ and ‘negs’ really irritated me! I know it’s realistic that the characters would have used that terminology for pictures and negatives, but it was so grating. Again, not something that will bother everyone, of course.

I don’t think Henrietta Hamilton is an author I would want to read again, but other reviews of this book are more positive than mine so I hope Agora will continue to publish her other titles for those who are enjoying them.