Richard Marsh is best known for a creepy little horror novel called The Beetle, published contemporaneously with Dracula – and actually outselling it for quite a while. He would, however, stray into detective fiction occasionally but with much less success. In this story, he provides an early example of a female sleuth and his definite taste for sensation which really did ruin his detective stories.
Judith Lee teaches the deaf mute and, over the years, has become so proficient at lipreading that if she can see the mouth, she can understand what is being said. Now, I’ve been lipreading (not exclusively as I can still hear) pretty much since I was ten and I’m nowhere near as good as she is. I’m also confused as to why, if she is a teacher of the deaf, no mention is made of her sign language abilities? Admittedly, the crux of the story hinges on her lipreading skills rather than her ability to sign, but it would have been nice to know that she could do a bit.
The plot is convoluted and vaguely nonsensical but great fun regardless. The puzzle of the title involves the murders of an elderly French couple in Finchley in what is, essentially, a locked room mystery. This quickly develops into assassination attempts with explosive chocolates and a small but exceedingly deadly West African viper, and ends with our heroine disguising herself as a maid and the villain being bitten to death by a cobra.
You can see why it’s a rollicking good read, can’t you? And it is good fun, although the plot relies heavily on the reader’s ignorance about snakes and a whopping suspension of disbelief. I still haven’t worked out quite why Judith Lee merited not one but two assassination attempts – maybe that’s the real Finchley Puzzle?