Dr Thorndyke and company investigate the case of Cecil Moxdale, deceased, in a double-part novel. In the first section, Mr Polton narrates his life up to his momentous meeting with Thorndyke. I always think of Mr Polton as the older of the pair, but lawks a mercy, going by internal evidence Thorndyke is probably l5 years his senior, if not more. I found this section very interesting, as we learn much about Nathaniel Polton, beginning with his recollections as a three year old orphan with a sister called Maggie living with another family in the country, and then the various stages of his somewhat Dickensian life up to his making Thorndyke's acquaintance, the circumstances of which explain his devotion to Dr T and also some of his more unusual skills.
Much detail is given about Mr Polton's interest in a particular profession and a specific bit of invention which, years later, provides a vital clue to unravelling a mysterious death, the circumstances of which form the second part of the book, narrated by Dr Jervis. To my surprise Mr Polton actually states which of his particular skills contributed to the solution of the crime, though this revelation was not really needed because between the autobiographical details and the description of the scene of the crime it is obvious how the murder was accomplished, if not the person responsible.
Most of my school reports stated I should concentrate more and it seems this flaw still applies to a certain extent, for I soon found myself trying to calculate Mr Polton's age, given he mentions his childhood was a time when Finchley was still outside London and the omnibus to Finchley where his sister lived was horse-drawn, perhaps not the effect the author intended but there it is. Then I began to wonder about Dr Jervis' life and how he and Thorndyke met. Not having read all the Thorndyke yarns, it may be this is explained in one of them.
But pressing on regardless, onward I trundled to part the second. In brief, a fire completely guts a house where Mr Haire has taken rooms. Fortunately for him, he was in Ireland at the time, but unfortunately his cousin, Cecil Moxdale, was staying in the flat. The building is completely burnt out and the body is found more or less charred out of recognition though certain items found in the debris of the fire establish its identity.
And yet...certain aspects of the death suggest it was not accidental or even suicide and so Thorndyke and Jervis become involved. A pointer to the solution is provided by Polton from knowledge mentioned in the first section and although the resolution hinges on a honking great coincidence, rereading Polton's section I found circumstances described there in a more subtle manner than that mentioned above do provide a fair clue or two.
My verdict: Alas, this is the most disappointing of this author's works read so far. In fact, it gives the distinct impression Mr Polton's autobiography was grafted onto a short story to form a novel. Mr Polton's necessary information could, I believe, have been provided within the second section easily enough and in a far less obvious manner. Shocking to relate, I found Mr Polton's biography more interesting than the mystery and its resolution though the latter did have an unexpected twist.