The Unseen Hand by Edward Marston was set in London in 1917 during World War One and published in 1919.
The story began with detectives from Scotland Yard investigating the mysterious death of a guest at the exclusive, women’s-only Lotus Hotel in London.
Harvey and Joe quickly realised the woman had been murdered but they struggled to learn who the dead woman actually was, as their investigation was hampered by deceptive hotel staff, the over-bearing hotel owner and her husband, and a rival hotel owner who would seemingly stop at nothing to steal business from the Lotus Hotel.
I thought the back stories of Harvey and Joe and the other characters in this story were much more interesting than the plot, mostly because of the time this book was written.
For example, Joe was engaged to Harvey’s daughter Alice. Alice was also a police office and was clever and exceptionally good at her work, but her career prospects were limited because she was female, while her fellow female police officers were regularly subjected to sexual harassment by their male colleagues.
Joe and Alice were saving up for a home for when they married but their incomes were very poor despite them being employed by the police force. Joe wanted to join a union to fight for better pay, but this wasn’t allowed. Joe and Harvey both struggled with their work loads, although I was amused by Harvey being annoyed at having to miss his regular sit-down breakfast on the day the murdered woman was found.
The war was in the background of the story as were other current affairs and examples of popular culture from the time, such as Harvey’s wife reading and enjoying John Buchan’s The 39 Steps before becoming alarmed by a scare-mongering novel called The Invasion of 1910 by William le Queux.
The character’s opinions and values were more closely aligned with present ideas than I had expected about issues such as the mental health of returned soldiers, women’s right to vote and work in careers which had prior to the war been held by men only. The author also clearly presented the idea that women who were raped or sexually attacked by a man rarely reported these incidents because the women were likely to lose both their case and their reputation in the process.
Unfortunately the actual writing wasn’t as good as it should have been. I’m not a very critical reader but noticed that the structure of the sentences seemed to be the wrong way around. For example, the first sentence of Chapter 2 reads, “As the police car sped through the streets in the gloom, the detectives sat in the rear seats.” I’m no editor, but surely this should have read, “The detectives sat in the rear seat of the police car as they sped through the London gloom.”
Despite the writing, I liked the characters and enjoyed the story nearly to the end, but the solution to the mystery let the rest of the story down terribly as it was both complicated and unlikely to the point of being ridiculous, which of course made guessing the answer to be impossible.