Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Shadow of the Rope: A Free Book Review

"The marriage that I propose to you," continued Steel, "is simply the most convenient form of friendship of which I can think. I want to be your friend; indeed, that much I mean to be, if necessary, in spite of you. I was interested in your case, so I came up to hear your trial. I was more interested in your trial, but most interested of all in yourself. There, indeed, the word is too weak; but I will not vex your spirit with a stronger. My attraction you know; my determination you know; even the low wiles to which your pride reduced me, even my dodging and dogging, have been quite openly admitted to you on the first reasonable opportunity. ... What I can do, however," and Steel bent further forward, with eyes that held Rachel's in their spell; "what I can do, and will, is to go back with a lady who shall be my wife in name, my daughter in effect. We should, I trust, be the best of friends; but I will give you my word, and not only my word but my bond, that we never need be anything more."

This is the strange proposal that confronts Rachel Minchen, just acquitted by jury of murdering her husband, but considered guilty by practically everyone else in Britain, in The Shadow of the Rope (free audiobook here), by E. W. Hornung. A mysterious stranger—a rich, older man named Steel—watched the trial and offered Mrs. Minchen his assistance, which she spurned until the full horror of her desperate situation drove her to accept.

Who is he, really? Why is he interested in her, and what connection did he have with her husband and perhaps with his murder? And who did kill him, anyway? Steel is polite to Rachel, but there is a gulf between them, and sometimes he seems curiously unconcerned about her even as he has expressed or demonstrated attentiveness.

It isn't until Rachel's secret past (and perhaps Steel's) begins to come out that a friend, a writer, undertakes a proper investigation into the murder, about which Steel is not just uninterested but defiant, daring him to find the truth.

This is quite a good story on the whole. There are two things that bother me, though they are fairly minor.

First, only an idiot would think Rachel guilty. She had quarreled with her husband and was on the brink of returning to Australia when he was killed: why should she kill him, under the circumstances? And if she did kill him, wouldn't she realize how damning her preparations to leave would look? Someone tried (incompetently) to conceal the murder and make it look like the work of thieves; if that was her doing, she should have trusted to the deception and (again) not continued her preparations for departure. And then there's her decision to visit a sick friend when she should have been either fleeing or doing a better job covering up the crime. It's fairly obvious that she didn't know about the murder until well after the fact.

Second, we are told not to pity a certain character. Rubbish! Not to pity that character is to be a jerk. The character's effective end is in my opinion undeserved, and pity is deserved.

Otherwise, it's a good story that will puzzle and mislead the reader until the end.

Once again, that's

The Shadow of the Rope

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