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“Cat’s Paw” by Roger Scarlett

It’s fair to say that in the public consciousness, the Golden Age of Detection is seen as a period of mystery writing dominated by women, thanks in large part to the continuing success of Agatha Christie’s works, as well as the “Four Queens” label applied to her, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham. Perhaps that is why it comes as such a surprise to me that not only is Cat’s Paw my first New Horizons selection written by a woman, it is also my first mystery novel written by a woman in 2023! I suppose that part of how this came to be is that, having also seen GAD from the perspective of female writers for a long time, I gravitated early on in my GAD rediscovery to authors new to me who were women, like Marsh and Christianna Brand. Hopefully I am making up for my lack of representation on the blog with a novel co-written by two women, who were also a lifelong same-sex couple during the first half of the 20th century!

The five mystery novels of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, under the pseudonym of “Roger Scarlett” (apparently the name of their bulldog, whom they then renamed Podge,) have long been extremely obscure in America, where they once enjoyed more popularity alongside the biggest inspirations for the Scarlett writing style: S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen (this information I borrow from the American Mystery Classics introduction, written by Scarlett’s modern champion, Curtis Evans.) Interestingly enough, they’ve stayed popular in Japan, where the Van Dinian approach to puzzle plotting has kept it in vogue while the shin honkaku movement has steadily grown. Although only one of the five detective stories featuring Inspector Norton Kane of Boston, Cat’s Paw gives a detailed glimpse into the era that Blair and Page lived in, alongside intricate character psychology and, of course, a superb fair-play mystery.

Cat’s Paw contains what is today a rather hackneyed mystery trope, albeit rendered brilliantly (of course, this is 1931 we’re talking about, when said tropes were rather new.) Martin Greenough is one of the richest men in Boston, with millions of dollars from various ventures, a vast and foreboding mansion that the Fenway was eventually built around, and days of idle vacancy. He lives in his mansion nearly alone, with only his longtime companion/mistress, the (no-longer-) Mrs. Warden, and a set of servants to keep him company. The childless Greenough is often visited by his five nieces and nephews, who go to keep their “Cousin Mart” company for some time and always happen to leave with a generous check. Mart doesn’t mind them having an allowance from him, as long as he can control their financial independence as well as many other aspects of their lives.

The arrival of Martin’s 75th birthday finds four of the relatives – Blackstone Greenough, Francis Greenough, Hutchinson Greenough (with his wife Amelia,) and George Pickering – around to celebrate with Cousin Mart (George’s sister Anne is absent, having severed ties with Mart.) Blackstone has brought his fiance Stella Irwin, who, as it happens, Mart once barred Francis from marrying. A series of events leaves Mart rather angry at his relatives, and at his birthday dinner he suddenly announces his plan to marry Mrs. Warden, which would mean that she, and not the relatives, would become Mart’s primary beneficiary after he dies. Can you guess what happens to Cousin Mart during his birthday firework show right after?

Of course, this “tyrannical patriarch murdered at gathering of relatives” plot has since been done to death – see Appointment with Death, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Crooked House, Knives Out, etc., etc. – but even from the perspective of a jaundiced modern reader, this setup as seen in Cat’s Paw feels much more refreshing than I expected. A good deal of this vitality comes from the complex personalities and psychologies of the characters, who exhibit certain mystery-trope traits but also act against them for strong reasons. Cousin Mart may come off as a domineering, arrogant patriarch, but at the same time he holds a certain fondness for his favorite relatives, and a sweet affection for Mrs. Warden. Francis portrays himself as agreeable and amiable, but he easily and unremorsefully deceives others. Hutchinson comes off as cool and calculated, but the slightest detriment to his plans drives him into panicked reconfiguration. Instead of each character simply fitting the role conventional mystery standards assigns, they become more three-dimensional, creating a more realistic setting for events that could really only happen in a murder mystery.

And murder there is. Cousin Mart is of course found shot after the firework party, and as Inpsector Kane is absent on a cruise at the time of the murder, it is up to Sergeant Moran of the BPD to handle clues and interrogations after the murder, and Kane’s Watson, the lawyer Underwood, to detail the events directly leading to Martin Greenough’s (un)timely demise. The setup of the book reflects Kane’s absence during most of the events. It is split up into four parts: a prologue in which Underwood welcomes Kane back home, Underwood’s account of the events leading up to the murder, Moran’s investigation; and Kane’s illumination of the truth. My favorite section of the novel was the second, because of the deep looks into the different characters and how they interact, but Moran’s investigation comes close. For one, it’s written with the reader’s intelligence in mind, recognizing that we needn’t be reminded of major developments from thirty pages ago and simply shuttling along with new clues and information. I also enjoyed how Moran’s views on the case reflect the society he lived in. Not only is he in awe of the victim’s identity (since Greenough is essentially a post-Rockefeller robber baron,) but he also shows shock and disdain at Mrs. Warden’s then-unconventional place in the family, especially as a proselytizes during interrogations:

“It’s immoral, isn’t it? Well, then, if you’d been in this business as long as I have, you’d know that crime and immorality are hand in glove, so to speak. Of course I’m not making any statement, you understand.”

Cat’s Paw, Chapter 18: “Heirs Apparent”

Something else that makes this section, and the entire novel, so easy to understand and follow is the writing style. Scarlett’s prose is dignified but still easily accessible. There isn’t much trickery with syntax, word choice, or point of view to throw things off. Events happen, people act, a crime is committed and then figured out. Even then, there are still some beautifully poetic turns of phrase hidden across the chapters:

The projectile leaped from the trough into the air with a hissing, menacing roar. It soared upward toward the clouds, leaving in its wake a parabolic trail of fire to mark its flight. Minutes seemed to pass, and the rocket to have disappeared utterly into the night, when suddenly, high in the air, there was a burst of multi-colored radiance, which heightened and widened and then seemed to hold itself motionless above the earth. As suddenly as it had appeared it dropped, the fiery stars shifting and fluttering down like scraps of thin paper or brilliant flares of snow.

It marked the triumphant end of the celebration. Now, in quickening drops, the rain began to fall, as if the rocket’s flight had brought down the storm from the clouds. The wind came up and rattled the discarded wrapping papers across the lawn. There was a flash of lightning and a solemn roll of thunder.

Cat’s Paw, Chapter 14: “Playing with Fire”

Moran makes several inquisitive advances in the case, but ultimately falls short. Once Kane arrives on site at the Greenough mansion to put the matter to bed, it is almost as if his religiously commanding presence has replaced that of Mart’s. It seems as if he immediately breaks through each suspect’s hidden secrets and lies, picking up on new facts that went over Moran’s head. Following 120 pages’ worth of slow build-up, and another 50 pages of preliminary investigation, this final act rewards the patient reader with 60 more pages, this time chock-full of revelation. Little mysteries are put to bed, especially concerning the nephews’ smaller peccadilloes against Mart, and then at the end Kane puts together the timetable, the physical evidence, the character psychologies, and even the architecture of the mansion to provide a multi-layered solution to Martin Greenough’s murder – the way that several different people’s actions led to one large obfuscation about the murder reminded me of The Arabian Nights Murder. Kane ties in every seemingly unrelated thread of the case to create one coherent story (he also adds in, rather frustratingly, one very important and damning physical clue which we don’t even know exists until he pulls it out on page 235/240.) In the fashion of The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen, or Colin Dexter’s The Riddle of the Third Mile, while Scarlett slowly reveals the truth behind the crime for the reader to infer, the actual identity of the murderer is left hidden until the last sentence of the novel, in a two-page chapter which adds several shocking twists and ends the work on an interesting note. I have respect for Blair and Page for wanting to end the novel at the height of a plotting crescendo, but at the the same time I wouldn’t have minded a chapter that at least resolved the characters’ own conflicts beyond the murder, letting us know how they interacted with each other and led on with their lives after the resolution of the murder, a la Christianna Brand.

Cat’s Paw was a very entertaining read from an author whom I really wish had written more than five detective novels. Some minor flaws, like the hidden final clue and the abrupt ending, I can easily forgive in light of the round characters, thoughtful plotting, and smooth but terse prose. From what I can tell, the two works before Cat’s Paw are rather conventional and to a degree forgettable, but the two after Cat’s Paw are just as unconventional and memorable as what I’ve just read. Three cheers, then, for the timely rediscovery of Roger Scarlett!

New Horizons Challenge: 7 works out of 25

Author: Roger Scarlett

The Challenge Requirements so far:

1/3 works translated into English

3/3 works written in English after 1970

1/2 works that are hardboiled or noir

2/2 works written by an American minority author

0/2 works with a musical setting

Other Reviews:

Beneath the Stains of Time


The Green Capsule

Ho-Ling Wong

The Invisible Event

Mysteries Ahoy!

The Passing Tramp (This is a post more on Scarlett in general than on Cat’s Paw.)


2 responses to ““Cat’s Paw” by Roger Scarlett”

  1. A timely review, as I just completed Murder Among the Angells, and this serves as a reminder of what I enjoyed about Cat’s Paw. Having read this some months back, it’s the ending that still stands out to me. Yes, it’s abrupt, but it’s a gut punch, and that’s hardly anticipated in a story populated by a cast of unlikeable characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you on the gut punch aaspect – to continue my musical metaphor of the “plotting crescendo”, the sudden uptick in emotional tension and release in the last chapter is like a sforzando which doesn’t have much of a chance to quiet down. For me the biggest part of the final page’s shock was in suddenly realizing how well the motive has been hidden in the earlier sections.

      Looking forward to your thoughts on Murder Among the Angells! I’vr been curious as to how Scarlett tackles the problem of the locked elevator, as well as the 9 floorplans.


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