The Missing Link, the first of three detective novels published by Katharine Farrer, was one of the books I covered in my Oxford literary tour last week. First published in 1952, it was reissued a few years back by the admirable Rue Morgue Press, and Tom and Enid Schantz of Rue Morgue included a very informative introduction. Farrer was the wife of an eminent theologian, Austin Farrer,and the couple were friendly with the likes of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers.
They lived in Oxford,where this book is set. Katharine fell for Austin while she was a student at St Anne's College, and almost inevitably she made her Detective Inspector, Richard Ringwood, an Oxford graduate. He's from the school of gentlemanly cops, and we first encounter him at the Mitre (a pub that holds a special place in my own affections), talking to his fiancee Claire Liddicote. He's not happy to be disturbed by a call to investigate the apparent abduction of a small baby, brought up (in a rather weird way) by a couple called the Links. Hence the title, which is capable of no fewer than three interpretations - rather clever.
Katharine Farrer was elected to the Detection Club on the strength of just three books, and to be honest, it has crossed my mind that she may have owed this honour almost as much to personal connections as to the quality of her detective fiction, since after her election, she never wrote another mystery. Her life, like her literary career, seems to have faded in sad fashion. The Schanttzes explain that she was very highly strung, and turned to drink and drugs. There's no hint of such failings in this novel, but I must say that I felt it was a genuine curiosity rather than any sort of a masterpiece.
Ringwood is human and likeable, and there is a very powerful and entirely original climax to the story. The culprit's motive is, I am sure, unique in the genre, and I do love unusual motives. These are great strengths, but frankly they would have combined to make a brilliant short story. For a novel, they are not quite enough. The culprit is fairly obvious from the start, and the storyline meanders rather tediously. I became disillusioned long before the dramatic and unorthodox finale. I found the humour so-so and the treatment of social issues well-meant but very dated..I'm glad I read this odd baby-theft story,but I would like to think that Farrer's other two novels are more gripping than this one.