A review by bookwyrm_lark
Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird


Henrietta Who? is the second mystery featuring Inspector Sloan and the hapless Constable Crosby, and it remains one of my favorites. Aird piles mystery upon mystery: Was Grace Jenkins’ death truly accidental? If she’s not Henrietta’s mother, how did she come to raise Henrietta on her own? What about Henrietta’s deceased father – why are his war medals not the same as the ones he’s wearing in his portrait? And when Henrietta then discovers that there is no Cyril Edgar Jenkins on the regimental monument – and then sees the man from the portrait in the street – the questions only multiply. Who is the man in the portrait? Is he any relation to Henrietta? The police are on the track of a killer, but Henrietta has her own, more urgent question: Who am I?

It’s up to Sloan to find the answers to all these questions, and he does, with his usual quiet determination. Sloan isn’t a brilliant detective in the mold of a Holmes or Poirot; instead, he is a dedicated policeman. He doesn’t give up, and he’s certainly intelligent enough to put the pieces together, but he does so not through flair but through painstaking detective work: asking questions, checking alibis, looking for motive and opportunity. He’s also a keen observer of both detail and human nature, crucial skills in his line of work.

Crosby is generally of little help, but he does provide low-key comic relief. The joke on the force is that somewhere in the uniform division, there’s a man with the same name who ought to have been promoted to the plainclothes detection squad. Crosby lacks the curiosity required of a detective, but occasionally he comes up with a clue, sometimes without realizing it. He’s less observant than even Watson or Poirot’s friend Hastings, but like them, he serves as a foil for Sloan: someone to whom Sloan can explain things or think out loud, as well as someone to take on the less interesting tasks and errands (searching the records, checking the ground for clues, etc.)

The plot of this mystery is complicated even for Aird, who excels at inventive plots. And she develops it perfectly, uncovering first more questions and then, eventually, the clues that finally bring the mystery to a satisfying conclusion. The pacing is just right, and Sloan’s (and Aird’s) understated humor and occasional dry irony make Henrietta Who? a delight to read. Incidentally, it also holds up remarkably well, but you should remember that it was written and is set in the early 1960s; there are no cell phones and decidedly no Internet, which means (among other things) that records searches take much longer to accomplish.

I first read Henrietta Who? in my twenties, and I’ve been an Aird fan ever since. So I was delighted to see that Open Road is reissuing most of her early books in print and ebook format. Her mysteries are a wonderful blend of police procedural and cozy mystery, low on violence and heavy on character, plot, and above all a challenging intellectual puzzle. She’s easily as good as Christie, and stylistically, her writing is better. If you haven’t made Aird’s acquaintance yet, by all means go read Henrietta Who? or the first Inspector Sloan book, The Religious Body. And enjoy!

Review originally published at The Bookwyrm's Hoard.

FTC disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher through NetGalley. All opinions are entirely my own.