The Woman In The Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer

‘A corpse in a blood-soaked room; a locked door and a locked window; a masked man; a beautiful girl trussed inside a wardrobe; and now a pretender to the throne! This is superb!’

Mr Verity, general know-it-all and master sleuth was walking to the beach for a spot of bathing when he saw a man climbing out of a hotel window. His curiosity being piqued, he investigated, only to find a dead body one of the hotel rooms, quite possibly the man he saw defenestrating himself. But the window in the victim’s room was locked from the inside – and so was the door.

But the dead body was not the only occupant of the room – for tied up inside the wardrobe was one of the hotel maids. She tells a tale of a masked man who burst into the room and shot the victim – but is she telling the truth, a part-truth or an outright lie? It seems the victim had many enemies, and she was one of them. But the truth is far more complex that one might believe…

Peter Shaffer was a rather talented individual being a multi-award winning playwright and screenwriter, but before all that, he turned his hand to detective fiction, producing this book by himself, and two others with the help of his twin brother Anthony. Where as most writers of mystery fiction turned their hands to new styles, Shaffer chose to embrace full on the Golden Age style. His sleuth, Mr Verity, bears more than a passing resemblance to Gideon Fell, with a dash of Sir Henry Merrivale thrown in, and the locked room mystery – well… I’ll come to that in a bit – strikes me as a homage to Carr as well.

Shaffer’s later writing was all for stage and screen and you can see that in the set up of the murder scene. In a single room, someone comes through the door and escapes through the window, another comes through the window and escapes through the door, a woman is hiding in the wardrobe… all you need is a vicar whose trousers keep falling down and you’ve a classic West End farce – not that’s the sort of play Shaffer wrote, but that’s the feeling it puts across here.

As for the lockedness of the room – there is a key-card knocking around which might or might not have been used to lock the door, so it somewhat undermines the rationale that the room might have been locked by said card, although who has the card is another strand of the plot – but I think it’s safe to say that there is more going on that someone locking the door from the outside with the keycard. Just in case you were worried… In fact, the solution to the mystery is rather marvellous.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, as this is a pretty short book, clocking in at under 200 pages, and even then, there is a touch of padding about it, notably concerning one particular character. Said character is perfectly entertaining, but on hindsight, it feels a tad as if they were there to swell the page count. As with some of Carr’s books, this might have worked better as a novella, but all credit to Shaffer, he does a better job at hiding it than Carr’s method of banging an ill-thought out extra murder/incident in the final third. The Problem Of The Wire Cage, I’m looking at you here…

Many thanks to the British Library and Martin Edwards for finding this one, and securing the rights to reprint it. Collectors have sought it for years and now it’s available once again. Let’s hope the other two follow suit, as if they are anything like this (and with contributions from the author of Sleuth), then they are must-reads.

The Woman In The Wardrobe is out on June 10th. Many thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

11 comments

  1. Great review and a great book, whose revival was long overdue! Well done, Martin.

    A tiny point. You say “… a classic West End farce – not that’s the sort of play Shaffer write”. Not in later years certainly but check out his “classic West End farce” ‘Black Comedy’, which has more than a little in common with ‘The Woman in the Wardrobe’.

    Keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we all can agree that 2020 can’t end fast enough, but it can’t be denied that it has been a good year for locked room mystery reprints. I particularly look forward to finally read this gem. Hopefully, it will be successful enough to get Withered Murder reprinted next year.

    Anyway, thanks for the appetizer! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fantastic news – I remember Symons saying nice things about the Shaffer novels but resigned myself to never finding an affordable copy. Let’s hope the Peter Anthony volumes appear soon too!

    Like

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