Saturday, 31 October 2020

A Damon Gaunt mystery - Eyes that saw not

Continued from last week's post on Isabel Ostrander, the creator of the blind detective Damon Gaunt

Unlike Thornley Colton, who displayed his skills in a number of novella length tales before getting into a novel-length adventure, Damon Gaunt's first appearance is in a serialized novel. Because of the bigger  scope of the novel, he doesn't have to show off his skills till about thirty paragraphs in. His first deduction is that the person who has brought him the case of Garrett Appleton, murdered at his home, is a cocaine addict. He bases this on the constant sniffing and rubbing of his nose.




Gaunt is a connoisseur of voices and forms his initial assessment of character based on the voice. When he gets to the Appleton home, he encounters three voices - one the coldest, most implacably hardened he has heard, another hysterical and the last tender and passionate. The three women are respectively the victim's mother, his wife and the wife's elder sister. The mother and the sisters don't get along. The coroner asks them to retire to their rooms so that the investigation can proceed. Gaunt identifies the inspector in charge by recalling the scent of his cigar smoke and another policeman by his wheezy breathing.

The police think it was a burglary gone wrong. Appleton's jewelry and money are missing. There are tracks on the carpet. The window is open. Gaunt differs - the tracks are left by bloody hands not feet, the window was opened from the inside and not broken and no tracks can be seen outside the window (though quite how the blind Gaunt can make this out without going out of the room is a mystery) and the dead man's expression (identified by Gaunt touching his face) of horror at knowing his fate but being powerless to prevent it proves it was an inside job.

Now that the inspector's theory is proven wrong, he goes out to interview the servants and comes back after Gaunt finishes inspecting the room, pocketing clues - two strands of hair and a revolver. Now the inspector has a new theory: Appleton might have been murdered by a French valet he had dismissed a month ago. 

Gaunt interviews the victim's mother. She doesn't see how family history would be relevant to the crime, but ends up communicating her disapproval of her son's marriage and says the murder might have happened because of the unsuitable marriage. Gaunt further finds out the source of friction in the family is money, an inheritance from Appleton's father that bypasses his younger son in favor of the dead son's children.

The story proceeds by revealing reasons for almost everyone present to be a suspect in the killing, including a retired judge and his daughter, who are guests for the evening. Gaunt finds himself falling for the victim’s wife’s elder sister, whose voice and character he finds charming.

At this point, the story very much resembles an Agatha Christie mystery. A body found in a country house with a limited set of suspects was her bread and butter. What then, makes Gaunt different from Christie’s Poirot?

He depends heavily on touch, smell and hearing to deduce things. One of Gaunt’s mannerisms is to bring into the conversation something he has deduced about the other person; something the other person is trying to conceal. This has the effect of making the other person vulnerable and prone to admit the full truth. 

Unlike Christie’s Poirot or Clinton Stagg’s Thornley Colton, he doesn’t create an air of mystery around his deductions by waiting for the climax to reveal his methods. When revealed, they are usually plausible, except perhaps when he deduces the color of hair by handling it.

He suffers spasms of self-doubt, wondering whether his blindness has precluded him from finding the key to the situation. Poirot seldom doubted himself.

Gaunt shows his humanity in forgiving the behavior of one of the victim’s family members. He advises them on the disposal of incriminating evidence. He does this because he is convinced that despite having concealed the crime, the family member has not committed it. He is sympathetic to another who created some of the problems leading to the crime. These feelings are critical to the plot and our understanding of the characters of each person in this case.

The penultimate chapter is titled Failure and Victory. It is a conclusion to the Appleton mystery, but not the story of Damon Gaunt. Ostrander’s writing is moving, some may be put off by the mechanism Gaunt uses to distance himself and others in his explanation of the crime. The fairy tale ends happily for everyone except Gaunt.

This is a very modern story, deserving of re-discovery.

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