Miss Van Arsdale Goes Undercover
A forerunner of the classic English mystery genre, The Woman in the Alcove was written by an American in 1905. Miss Van Arsdale, short and plain, is a member of the lower echelon of New York’s high society, and has recently resigned her self to a life as a spinster nurse. As the story opens, she is attending a grand party at the Ramsdells’ mansion, and is swept off her feet by Anson Durand, who proposes marriage. But the star of the evening is not a person; it is the spectacular diamond worn by the elegant Mrs. Fairbrother.
During the course of the evening, Mr. Durand and Miss Van Arsdale are often separated, and she notices some decidedly odd goings-on in the curtained alcove at the end of one of the large salons. It comes to pass that Mrs. Fairbrother is murdered there, ostensibly for her diamond, and Mr. Durand, alas, is the prime suspect. But Miss Van Arsdale is certain that her one true love is innocent. Could this be a set-up? She determines to discover who is the real perpetrator, and manages to convince Inspector Dalzell to assist her in quest to identify that true villain. This book is a delight to read if only for its illustrations. The plot is an intriguing one, but it is narrated in the first person, which by necessity makes it a “talky” sort of mystery, with only brief episodes of action. The vocabulary and speech patterns of the day contribute to that quality. Also, it was rather difficult to believe that Miss Van Arsdale could fall so instantly and completely in love with a man with whom she had never spoken to prior this meeting. Finally, Inspector Dalzell comes across as a rather blinkered detective, having made up his mind that first night that Durand had to be guilty. Miss Van Arsdale is a true Edwardian heroine. The Woman in the Alcove, despite its naivete, is a very proper yet very enjoyable little mystery that deserves a modern readership.