In general, serial killer mysteries are a more modern invention, but that does not mean none were written in the Golden Age. Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke is one example, although that killer’s victims are not as arbitrarily chosen as those in The Z Murders.
The main character of this novel is Richard Temperley, who has been traveling all night on a train when we meet him. His companion in the compartment, an elderly man, has been annoying him by snoring for hours. His train arrives at Euston Station at 5 AM, and he is perplexed about what to do with himself until a decent hour when the porter recommends the smoking room at a hotel across from the station.
When Richard arrives at the hotel, he is dismayed to pass his elderly railway companion in the hallway. In the room, he notices a beautiful young woman by the fire and thinks he will sit by the window. However, first he has an impulse to check on his baggage. When he returns, he finds the young woman emerging from the room looking upset. The elderly man is now sitting by the window, so he takes the woman’s seat by the fire. He is dozing off when he realizes the old man isn’t snoring. Sure enough, he is dead.
While Temperley is being quesioned by the police, he finds himself omitting information about the woman, particularly that he has found her purse in the seat of the chair he’s sitting on. The elderly man has been shot by a silenced pistol from the open window, the seat Temperley originally chose until he decided to check his baggage. A metal Z is next to the victim on the window sill.
Although Detective Inspector James doesn’t believe Temperley was involved in the crime, he thinks he knows more than he is saying. So, he puts a tail on Temperley. Temperley has found a card in the woman’s purse identifying her as Sylvia Wynne. He goes directly to her house and, finding no one there, is able to get in with a latch key. Richard finds a metal Z in the front hallway under the letter slot. A moment later, Sylvia comes through the window.
Of course, Richard has been smitten at first sight, but he is only able to speak with Sylvia briefly and give her his sister’s phone number before Inspector James is at the door. When he turns around, she is gone again.
The resulting adventure/mystery involves a cross-country chase that reminds me a little bit of The 39 Steps without the espionage. The novel has a complicated plot, but the characters of Temperley and a cab driver named Diggs are nicely drawn. Although Sylvia is pretty much reduced to a damsel in distress, of the Golden Age mysteries I’ve been reading lately, I think I like Farjeon best.