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The Crimson Blind

The Crimson Blind - Fred M. White Frederick Merrick White (1859-1935) was an English author who wrote a number of novels and short stories under the name Fred M. White. Although he apparently didn't start publishing his work until the age of 43, over the next 30+ years, he wrote approximately 90 novels and short-story collections and is considered by some to be a pioneer of spy stories.

In 1905's The Crimson Blind, set primarily in the coastal city of Brighton, bestselling detective novelist David Steel finds himself in dire financial straits. He's contacted by a mysterious young woman who tells him she will pay his debt in exchange for helping her concoct a plan to get out of a sticky situation. After a late-night meeting to seal the deal, with the woman's identity kept hidden from Steel, the author returns to his home to find it's been broken into, and a near-dead man has been left bleeding on the floor of his conservatory.

The police suspect Steel, thanks to an incriminating cigarette case that points to Steel as the culprit. As Steel battles to clear his name, he falls in with Dr. Hatherly Bell, "a small, misshapen figure, with the face of a Byron—Apollo on the bust of a Satyr," a man possessed of marvelous intellectual powers and a secret past, who also happens to have a personal connection to the mysterious woman and offers to help Steel.

The investigation soon leads to the benevolent millionaire philanthropist Gilead Gates and his right-hand man, the villainous Reginald Henson, who aspires to become a member of Parliament. The myriad subplots and plot twists involve a faked death, a missing ring, blackmail, dog attacks, a decaying country estate and a stolen Rembrandt. White pens some passages of evocative writing, such as the opening lines:

David Steel dropped his eyes from the mirror and shuddered as a man who sees his own soul bared for the first time. And yet the mirror was in itself a thing of artistic beauty—engraved Florentine glass in a frame of deep old Flemish oak. The novelist had purchased it in Bruges, and now it stood as a joy and a thing of beauty against the full red wall over the fireplace. And Steel had glanced at himself therein and seen murder in his eyes.

Overall, The Crimson Blind is a decent and entertaining Victorian mystery, which just happens to be available free via Project Gutenberg.