Light from a Lantern is the first novel by Jonathan Stagge that I've featured as a Forgotten Book, or indeed read, but I've previously discussed books written by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the co-authors, who also wrote as Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin. I've enjoyed the Patrick/Quentin books, but the Stagge titles aren't easy to come by in the UK. Luckily for me, I found a handful via a dealer's catalogue, and took the plunge. On the evidence of Light from a Lantern, I have treats in store when I get round to the other Stagges.
The Stagge books feature Dr Hugh Westlake, a widower and amateur sleuth, who is accompanied by his young daughter Dawn. It's rare for young children to play a significant part in a series of traditional whodunits, but Dawn is given a major role here in pinning the guilt on the culprit,and I gather that she also has much more than a walk-on part in other Stagge stories.
The setting of this novel is highly atmospheric, and a huge strength. Westlake and Dawn take a holiday in the decaying resort of Cape Talisman. I don't know the US well enough to know whether Stagge based.the location on a real life seaside village, but he certainly evokes the sinister mood of a place threatened with destruction by coastal erosion, and exposed to wild storms. One of those storms is pivotal in the final pages, with one scene in a church very distantly reminscent of that in J. Meade Falkner's The Nebuly Coat..
A young woman is found murdered near the hotel where Westlake is staying. Creepily, a mole on her body is found to have a scarlet circle drawn around it by the killer. Meanwhile, local graves are being disturbed in the spooky village cemetery. Then another murder takes place - and again the victim has a mole, circled in scarlet lipstick...
The story is pacy and ingenious. I thought I'd worked out a neat "least likely person" solution, but Stagge confounded me. I'm sure many whodunit fans will agree that this feeling, of being cleverly foxed, is one of the greatest pleasures of the genre. I'd go so far as to say that this book strikes me as a minor classic, and it's a shame it isn't better known, either under this title or under its original American title, The Scarlet Circle..
I'm not alone in enthusing over this author (or rather, authors). Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) rated Patrick Quentin as the best American mystery writer, but I imagine the scarcity of the books means that relatively few British fans have read Stagge in the past half-century. More recently, an array of good judges, mostly but not all from the US, have lauded his work. They include Mauro Boncampagni, who has a fine collection of books by Wheeler and Webb,Doug Greene, John Norris, Curt Evans, and Sergio Angelini. As so often, I find myself nodding my head in agreement with their views, and with their admiration for the undeservedly forgotten Jonathan Stagge.