Thursday, 5 September 2013

Penguin no. 1736: At the Villa Rose
by A.E.W. Mason

     Another disappointment awaited Ricardo. A detective without a false beard was bad enough, but that was nothing to a detective without handcuffs. The paraphernalia of justice were sadly lacking. However, Hanaud consoled Mr Ricardo by showing him the hard thing; it was almost as thrilling as the handcuffs, for it was a loaded revolver.
     'There will be danger, then?' said Ricardo, with a tremor of excitement. 'I should have brought mine.'
     'There would have been danger, my friend,' Hanaud objected gravely, 'if you had brought yours.'

There seems little doubt that Célie was in some ways a fake, and Camille Dauvray was her dupe. Celia was a young English girl to whom Mme Dauvray had provided protection and a home, but she was also the agency facilitating Mme Dauvray's delusion that she had met the spirits of Marie Antoinette and Mme de Medici amongst others, felt their touch, and listened as they recounted stories of their lives. At the time of her death, Mme Dauvray was longing for a visit from the spirit of Madame de Montespan.

Mme Dauvray may not have been an astute woman, but she was a wealthy one, and her husband's death had left her free to pursue her enthusiasms. The séances were one of these passions; purchasing expensive jewellery, and wearing it, was another, and it meant that Mme Dauvray advertised her wealth every time she left her home. She was intent on indulging in the first interest on the night of her murder, but the ransacking to which her bedroom was subjected that night suggested that it was the latter interest which sealed her fate.

Celia performed these séances in a darkened room, sitting away from the other participants in a recess secured with string, and always clad in black and wearing felt-soled pump, with these unvarying adornments never arousing Mme Dauvray's suspicions. There was to be another guest at the Villa Rose on the night of the murder: a woman Mme Dauvray had recently met and who declared herself to be a sceptic had been invited to take part in the séance. But she was nowhere to be seen later that night when a sergent-de-ville, noticing the villa's gate ajar, had decided to investigate and had found the murdered Camille Dauvray downstairs, and the gagged, bound and chloroformed maid Hélène Vanquier upstairs. Mademoiselle Célie was also missing, and it was widely assumed that she must have been responsible for her benefactor's death, either on her own or with the assistance of others whom she had welcomed into the villa.

Mme Dauvray had been on holiday when she had met her end: the Villa Rose was the home she let each summer in Aix-les-Bains, and it was in Aix that Celia had met and fallen in love with Harry Weathermill, a brilliant scientist who had turned his genius to amassing a fortune and was now risking some portion of it nightly at the Baccarat table of the Villa des Fleurs. Weathermill cannot accept the idea of Celia's guilt. He implores his fellow countryman Julius Ricardo to seek the help of the renowned Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté who was known to be holidaying in the area and surprisingly Hanaud does as he is requested: he abandons his holiday, finds himself welcomed onto the investigation, and sets about determining what actually happened at the Villa Rose on the night of the murder.

At the Villa Rose was first published in 1910, but there is little about the story which betrays such an early date, except for a few spare details, such as M. Fleuriot's obsession with the Dreyfus affair, Celia's elaborate attire with its ostrich feather hats and dresses with trains, and the term cab being used to describe a vehicle pulled by horses which travels no faster than one could walk. It is also a story with an unusual structure in that the reader is given the crime from three consecutive perspectives: the first two-thirds of the story follows Mr Ricardo's participation in the investigation, even though he is little more than an observer, and gives an outline of the puzzle and the clues; it culminates in Hanaud revealing the identity of the murderer. Seven chapters remain to be read at this point, comprising Ricardo's summation of an account of the crime from someone who witnessed it from within, and a detailed explanation from Hanaud as to how he unravelled the case.

Ricardo and Weathermill both accompany Hanaud as he begins his investigation, and their enthusiastic participation is easy to comprehend: Ricardo is a retired English businessman thrilled by his proximity to both adventure and a detective of such renown; Weathermill, of course, has a vested interest in the case. The more perplexing question would seem to be why Hanaud allowed these amateurs to accompany him. While he does make use of Ricardo's name, apartment, and wealth, it seems more likely that the great man loved an audience, and the presence of his inferiors to remind him of his own superiority. Or perhaps it is simply that the story requires it, for it is Ricardo's perspective that the reader follows. Poor Ricardo must pay a substantial price for his opportunity to observe a murder investigation, for Hanaud delights in mocking his every statement.

A.E.W. Mason has explained[1] that he set out to create an investigator who was a police officer able to solve the crime by drawing upon nothing other than intelligence and experience, as distinct from "a man with a laboratory at his elbow...[or] a private detective who was always welcomed with open arms by the high officers of Scotland Yard because he would tell them where they went wrong and nobly let them take all the credit in the end." So it is the bewildered offsider who is the man of leisure here, and the detective who must work for his living. The sequence of events is probably a little too fortuitous, and quite a few of the slightest deviations would have rendered the case unsolvable, so it is not only Hanaud's genius which has brought about the murderer's capture; bad luck, from the murderer's perspective, has also played its part. I thought the unusual structure added to the story, and I enjoyed the detailed post-solution analysis of the crime, not least because Hanaud's conceit seemed to mellow as the story progressed.

[1] An analysis of Hanaud by A.E.W Mason and an explanation of the inspiration for the story, with the odd spoiler.


  1. There were at least five Hanaud novels written from the period 1910 to 1946. At the Villa Rose was the first. I didn't notice that Hanaud's humorous self-conceit ever diminished. I think he was an important precursor to Hercule Poirot in terms of character and ability, predating Poirot by 10 years. Mason is also famous for the novel The Four Feathers, which has been filmed numerous times. There are short Wikipedia pages on Mason and Hanaud.

  2. The only Mason I've read is the Four Feathers. I do like classics crime, so I'm glad to have something new to explore.

  3. I was trying to think why Mason's name sounded familiar, then I saw Vicki's comment above.

  4. I was trying to think why Mason's name sounded familiar, then I saw Vicki's comment above.

  5. I'm curious as to when 'At the Villa Rose' was first published in French. Any chance you would know?



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