Beggar's Choice / Patricia Wentworth
New York: Time Warner, 1990, c1931.
This was another very entertaining summer mystery -- which I've had on my shelf for years! It looks like a modern paperback, which is probably why I'd overlooked it for so long, but it is actually a classic 30's story, full of mistaken identities, inheritances and jealous women seeking revenge.
Car Fairfax is down on his luck, with many wry observations about how his upper class friends don't know him anymore -- and how he feels uncomfortable forcing them to acknowledge him in his neediness. Because of this, he also distances himself from Isobel, the only girl he's ever loved (and who still loves him, but is apparently not given a choice in the matter of his noble decision).
Car's on his last legs when he is offered a very strange job via a flyer thrust at him on the street. He takes a weekly salary apparently to dine in fancy restaurants and look well off. Of course his world is very small, and so he invites his cousin Anna (who he had rejected romantically in favour of Isobel long ago) to dine with him. And at that restaurant he runs into just about everyone he knows.
It gets more complicated from there; his cousin Anna is a vengeful woman, seeking her just desserts for his earlier rejection. Since she knows some pretty shady people, things get serious. Car is being framed for theft, B&E, and drug possession. The quiet man he meets in the dark to get new assignments for his "job" offers him the chance to knock off his uncle (who had disinherited him) for the money.
But Car hasn't sunk that low. He still has standards, and indignantly refuses. Upon his return home, he discovers that the police are after him for various crimes, and leaps out of the skylight and across roofs to escape...there follows a wild rooftop chase...then Car drops through another skylight and ends up slipping into an old woman's room... which is one of the funniest moments of the book.
The old woman doesn't scream or even look up. Instead she asks him if he knows a 9 letter word for "a dark knight of Sir Arthur's Court" When he does, she triumphantly fills in her crossword and orders him to hide in the wardrobe.
The story continues, and of course all comes clear in the end. There are lots of elements to this book -- lots of period detail and interest -- and although it involves drugs and attempted murder it's not at all hard-boiled. I appreciate that there is humour in it even while desperate things occur. This is the first Wentworth mystery I've read, and I enjoyed doing so. Light but recommended for a fun period read.