Poor Amberley Cowden. The young man was extremely ill with a bad heart, and - to be blunt - was expected to die very soon. Of course, his relatives hoped he could hold out until his 21st birthday, for that's when he was due to receive a very large inheritance indeed. And it certainly looked as if he had made it, though just barely. He died just a few hours into his birthday - apparently his heart gave out and he fell over a cliff. A timely death for someone, to be sure. Too bad for that someone that amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge was on hand...
That's the basis of a fine mystery in Unexpected Night, by Elizabeth Daly, the first of sixteen mysteries written between 1940 and 1951 featuring Henry Gamadge. Daly is often said to have been Agatha Christie's favorite American novelist, and this first outing for Gamadge may help to explain why that should be so. Like Christie, Daly was an expert at misdirection, providing necessary clues to her readers but disguising them extremely well. Unexpected Night is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Henry Gamadge is, to me, a fascinating character. By profession, he is an expert on rare books, manuscripts and other documents. Here's how he describes his business, in Unexpected Night:
“It has no name. But if somebody wants to sell you a rare old pamphlet about Nell Gwyn, with Charles the Second’s autograph on the flyleaf and marginal notes by Louis the Fourteenth, I’ll perhaps be able to tell you whether it was made later than 1900 and what part of Michigan it came from.”
In Unexpected Night, Gamadge is vacationing along the coast of Maine. He happens to be working late one night when a party of travelers arrives at his hotel shortly after midnight. In that group is Amberley Cowden, a young man who is apparently quite wealthy and also quite sick. But it is now past midnight on Cowden’s 21st birthday, which means that he now inherits a million dollar fortune, having survived to reach that age.
The next morning, Amberley Cowden’s body is found at the bottom of a cliff. A tragic accident? Perhaps also a timely one for members of Cowden’s immediate relatives – had he died just a few hours earlier, all that money would have gone to another branch of the family. Oh, and Amberley Cowden had made a will, leaving significant bequests to his family members – only that will seems to have disappeared. Gamadge becomes involved in the case and winds up working quite closely with a very intelligent local police chief to reach some surprising and unexpected conclusions.
Unexpected Night isn't my favorite Gamadge book, but it does make a fascinating introduction to the character and, for the reader, to Daly's excellent writing style. This book and the next one in the series are set in rural Maine; by the third book, Gamadge returned to his native New York City and most of the later books are set there. There is no need, however, to read the books in order, and I think you might want to start with one of the later books. But you will almost certainly enjoy Unexpected Night, which, I hope, will both surprise and delight you.