Tom Pedley is a painter of landscapes. However, on this particular day in May the work on which he is engaged needs more than a little imagination, for he is in a small copse in Gravel Pit Wood, whose bosky dells are being rapidly gobbled up by developers. Concealed by shrubbery from the casual glance, he observes a woman creeping along the path through the wood. Her odd behaviour shows she is eavesdropping on a pair of men who have just walked past. One man returns and is furtively followed by the woman, and the intrigued Pedley checks the far end of the path but sees no sign of the second man.
Pedley lives in a studio in Jacob Street, which has a number of houses favoured by artistic types, and while eating his tea that afternoon decides to create a work based on the strange incident. He will call it The Eavesdropper and use his keen artistic eye to recreate the three strangers as actors in the scene. About a week later, he is working on the painting when his friend Mr Polton -- they first met in a Soho antique shop -- calls with a gift, a pewter tankard purchased in a shocking state from a Shoreditch junk stall and refurbished by the handy Mr P. Nor is this the only skill Mr Polton displays in the course of the mystery. Indeed, if he had ever turned to a life of crime he would have been difficult to catch. It is from Mr Polton that the artist, who has no wireless and does not read the papers, learns a murder by forcible administration of poison was committed in the wood during the very time he was painting the sylvan scene, and that from a description circulated in print and on the airwaves he is obviously the man being sought for interview by the police.
Enter Inspector Blandy, not to mention the brassy Mrs Schiller, a modernist artist separated from her husband and now living next door to Pedley, and Mr William Vanderpuye. He is studying with Dr Thorndyke and thus known to Mr Polton, who introduces him to the artist. It is while visiting the studio to arrange for a portrait sitting that Mr Vanderpuye meets Mrs Schilling, who pops in for a visit most days. The pair strike up a close friendship and Mr Vanderpuye is the last person seen with her before her disppearance. For while a dead woman is found locked into Mrs Schiller's room, she is not its tenant.
We now leap forward a couple of years. Mrs Schiller is still missing, but Drs Thorndyke and Jervis become involved in the case due to a large bequest which would be hers if she is still alive. A presumption of death has been requested but the solicitor feels uneasy about the circumstances. Is she alive, and if she is, why has she not been found despite sterling efforts by the authorities and a vast amount of publicity in the press? Who is the woman found dead in her room and what is the connection between them?
My verdict: Readers of this book learn another way to open a door locked from the inside. Doubtless most are familiar with at least two of them, the turn-key-from- the-outside-with-the-sugar-tongs and the push-key-out-on-to-a-piece-of-paper-shoved-under-the- door-and-pull-carefully-to-your-side. The latter works as I discovered when locked in my bedroom in a 1930s vintage flat as a witty jape, but you need a door with a gap under it. The method used in this case needs a particular type of key, common at the time so fair enough, and its use helps point up the fact that, despite appearances, the dead woman found in Mrs Schiller's room was not a suicide.
There are sufficient and fair clues, and the investigations are described in lively fashion. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems at first glance. I guessed part of the solution but not the whole, and all in all found this novel one of the better Thorndyke outings.