Withered Murder, the second of the collaborations of Anthony and Peter Shaffer, was first printed by Gollancz in London in 1955 and then reprinted a year later in New York by Macmillan as part of their 'Cock Robin Mystery' series of books.
As in How Doth The Little Crocodile? the story follows their eccentric detective Mr Verity and his unique ways of solving murders. Again, as in How Doth The Little Crocodile? the detectives name would become Mr Fathom when the book was published in the US, though the name Mr Verity does appear erroneously on pages 113 & 155!
Anthony Boucher who wrote a critical essay for The New York Times book review in 1956 described it as: “In 'Withered Murder' Anthony and Peter Shaffer attempt a formal detective story in the classic Grand Manner: murder on a stormbound island off the coast of Cornwall sternly solved by a flamboyantly eccentric Great Detective. Unfortunately the wit of Mr. Fathom, who admits that he is "the finest detective alive," is more rude than penetrating; his detection more lucky than astute; and the trick solution is both banal and preposterous. But the writing is often literally amusing; and even a minor specimen of the now rare classic form is welcome.”
The Classic Crime Fiction website reviewed it as “Whilst the plotting and and backgrounds are pretty much what we are used to elsewhere, the dialogue is what sets them apart. Sparkling, dry and humerous.” Anthony Shaffer was at that time the resident reviewer for The London Mystery magazine and reviewed the book favourably which mysteriously found it's way to the jacket cover!
The Shaffer brothers obviously enjoyed the mind boggling antics of their detective. One passage in the opening pages reads:
Mr Fathom was the finest detective alive. This was not only his personal oppinion (steadfast and dispassionate dogma would perhaps be more accurate), but that of many eminent practitioners at Scotland Yard, who respected him almost as much as they disliked him. Mr Fathom was indeed very much disliked. It was not so much that he was often right, as that he had the insufferable habit of making himself indispensable in a case, and finally of solving it with summery expedition accompanied by a mixed display of condescension and incivility while his official colleagues lay about exhausted and baffled. The thing which no one could excuse this brilliant, lumbering, bearded giant was his amateur enlightenment – the fact that his words spoke so much louder then everybody else’s actions.
The title of the book is taken from the Shakespeare play Macbeth and quotes from this are used as subheadings on each of the 14 chapters. Macbeth is also the play the characters go to see in the book. Another point of interest is the reference to The Liverpool Playhouse theatre in the story - this being the theatre where the young Shaffer brothers would first go to watch live theatre with their mother.
The prologue of Withered Murder tells us:
Mr Fathom once solved a murder case in a night. No ordinary case, either, such as could be unravelled by the dullest constable of a rural police force: far from it. The great man – never one to make a mountain out of a molehill – himself declared, looking back on that one night of horror at Crab Point:
“No kiling could have been more savage, nor so many unpleasing suspects implicated in it. The night was an anarchy of blood and intuition. A storm raged continually. I saw them all by lightning, in flickers and sparks of revelation. What I accomplished I did only because I was frightened. The average detective would have failed abysmally through his commonplace attempt to keep from being scared. I rejoice infinitely in my capacity for fright. When I lose it, and substitute merely manly reserve, or some other such sterile and deceitful attitude, I shall be as other investigators are, and cease to be the finest."
Here follows the story of that night.
Mr Fathom goes to stay at The Barnacle Hotel at Crab Point, a small island off the Cornish coast where he is visiting a friend Captain Trewalney.
During a tennis game, Hilary and her ex-husband Terence Germayne start an argument about a Celia Whitley, who is, according to Terence, a wicked woman who will control her life. Hilary, who is about to go away to India to be with her new love, doesn’t listen to Terence’s warnings so Terence storms off. Hilary is joined by Colin Grey who also warns her about Celia Whitley.
Later, all the guests gather for dinner. Mr Fathom observes them carefully. Mrs Poscol, the proprietor; Celia Whitely, retired actress; Hilary Stanton, Celia Whitley’s secretary; Terence Germayne, Hilary’s ex-husband and a failed artist; Professor Richter from Germany; Denis and Alice Radley, a minister and his wife; Colin Grey, a young journalist; Mr Potter, a solicitor and finally Meredith Blaire, archaeologist and ancient historian.
The next day, while the guests are relaxing around the hotel, Terence and Colin admit they have a mutual admiration for Hilary, but Terence warns Colin by saying Hilary is cold and harsh and could kill if so minded. Colin disagrees and accuses Terence of being jealous now that Hilary has someone new in her life. However, they do agree on one thing – Celia Whitley is an evil woman.
They knew. Something they knew. And what that something was, was yet unspeakable, that had in it all the endless depravity of hidden things. They sensed a blight, a corrosion, a horror. What exactly, they were left unable to say.
Mrs Poscol tells her guests about a production of Macbeth on the mainland and they all decide to go, except Mrs Arundel, an actress friend of hers who had just travelled down from Liverpool. Upon their return to the hotel, they find Celia Whitley dead.
Miss Celia Whitely lay on her back in the thick carpet, the brilliant red evening dress wrapped about her, and stained with a deeper red. She had no face. The flesh had been ripped and clawed away: her eyes too were damaged: even her grey hair was rich with blood and lay tangled in the sockets. Miss Celia Whitely had appeared in her last disguise
Mr Fathom takes charge and tells them he will investigate the murder and have the case solved by the morning. He searches the guest’s rooms (without them knowing) and finds Celia Whitley’s Will. He reveals Mrs Poscol will inherit the hotel (she was in partnership with Celia Whitely) on the understanding that she will let Hilary Stanton reside there whenever she needed to. The other beneficiary was Mr Potter, Celia’s solicitor and close friend. He would inherit eight thousand pounds.
Mr Fathom asks all the guests to retire to their rooms where he interviews them one by one, accusing each of them of being the murderer. He points out their motives and how the evidence goes against them, before leaving them to reflect on what has been said.
After accusing and upsetting all the guests, he visits Hilary Stanton. Mr Fathom enters the room, only to find her hanging from the ceiling. Nearby is a suicide note in which she confesses to killing Celia White.
Mr Fathom continues questioning the rest of the guests before finally bringing them all together in the drawing room. He reveals to them that Miss Arundel is Celia Whitely’s murderer and Celia Whitely has killed Hilary Stanton
“I narrowed it down to one person – the one person who had a more compelling reason for wanting Celia Whitely dead and Hilary Stanton dead than any of you…why, none other than Celia Whitely.” He explains that Miss Mary Arundel is in fact Celia Whitely in disguise. The actress is once again playing another character. He tells the baffled guests that Celia Whitely had befriended Bessie (a maid from the mainland) and tricked her into coming to ‘The Barnacle’ to visit her. Celia then knocked Bessie unconscious and tied her up hiding her under the bed. Later she murdered her, dressed her in her clothes and dumped her body in the drawing-room. Celia Whitely then went on to kill Hilary Stanton making it look like a suicide.
Celia had many reasons for her actions. By faking her own death she would not stand to lose her money or reputation. She had murdered her secretary so that it made it look like she was the one who had killed Celia Whitely, therefore leaving ‘Mary Arundel’ free to go. No one would suspect her of the crime.
As Mr Fathom makes to remove her disguise to reveal to the guests who she really is, Celia Whitely rages past him and the guests and runs off up the stairs. The others chase after her but stop when they hear her door close with a slam, followed by a crash of glass as Celia Whitely throws herself from her bedroom window to her death.