Two ex-detectives’ persistence throws new light on an old murder in postwar England.
Eleven years after actress Portia Blake was murdered on a country estate, an anonymous letter and a flawed jade pendant make retired Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair wonder if the wrong man was hanged for the crime on his watch. Too laid up with gout to travel, he asks his former subordinate John Madden, also retired, to persuade Scotland Yard to reopen the case. But there’s no proof that the jade pendant is the same one Portia was wearing the day she left Sir Jack Jessup’s house, climbed up a hill, and was strangled with her own scarf. The ex-con who was arrested for her murder confessed, the police stopped following other leads, and the condemned man, even though he recanted, was executed. But Sinclair is so perturbed that Madden unofficially visits the crime scenes and interviews Portia’s fellow houseguests from the day of the murder. Sir Richard Jessup, the son of Portia’s original host, helpfully enlightens Madden about Stanley Wing, the Eurasian guest who brought Portia to the house party. Sir Jack had rescued Wing from the streets when he was a boy, raised him at his own expense, and made him his business partner in the Asian trade until Sir Richard had to throw him out for questionable practices. Wing’s presence at the party was awkward enough, but Portia’s provocative behavior seemed calculated to embarrass the men at dinner the night before her murder. A sensational news headline finally forces Scotland Yard to reopen the case, and a new anonymous letter with a series of photos clearly intended for blackmail moves the dogged investigation in a new direction.
The fifth in Airth’s series (The Reckoning, 2014, etc.) is an intelligent character study conducted at a crawl. The hero’s fans will find him as thoughtful and principled as ever, but lovers of heart-pounding whodunits should look elsewhere.