Yet another recommendation from Martin Edwards’ “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books” and a worthy one.
“It is not without a feeling of horror and reluctance that I take up my pen.”
If you were to construct the paradigmatic Golden Age mystery you might start by building a Country House and populate with a presiding Squire and an assorted party of guests. Plop in a blustering Colonel – protesting and expostulating as he goes – and sprinkle with an unsuitable love affair or two. Wind up the doddery local vicar; add blackmail and butlers and blundering bobbies; engage the services of an amateur sleuth and ice with lashings of suspicious behaviour from all and sundry.
Romilly and Katherine John are very aware of the ingredients common in such mysteries and they manage here to have a lot of fun with them – along with a little touch of the ‘Had-I-But-Knowns’ – without spilling over into overly-arch parody or dullness.
It was on a “fateful evening in September” that the young Lord Malvern, a guest at Friar’s Cross, plays with a wireless and also – having just been repulsed by the spectacle of a murder trial – with the idea of spontaneous versus judicial murder.
“If anyone ever murders me,” he unwisely offers “I give them leave to let him off.”
Having painted this giant metaphorical target on his breast, Malvern is naturally found dead the next morning: which places something a pall on breakfast, as well as leading to an outbreak of hysterics, fainting and guilty behaviour, wryly deplored by, borne with and commented on by the Squire, Matthew Barry (who has a faint resemblance to Austen’s Mr Bennett in his ironic detachment from his household).
Malvern has been fatally gassed and it seems at first to be a case of suicide. The door was locked and he was unusually well-liked for a GAD victim (even the sardonic Matthew intriguingly admits to having been ‘a little in love with that young man’) so there seems no reason for him to have been murdered.
Soon, however, blackmail raises its inevitable head and there are melodramatic scenes from the Squire’s son Edward (twenty-something going on thirteen and inclined to sulks) and his flighty and foolish fiancée Judith (who Has A Past). Meanwhile, Inspector Lockitt makes himself unpopular, while the suave Mr Nicholas Hatton investigates in a private capacity, not forgetting to fall headlong in love with a suspect along the way.
There are further twists and turns, some bedroom shenanigans and a dramatic finale. Hints and herrings are scattered pleasingly throughout – though, despite guessing the culprit from a suggestive line given early on, I’m not sure I’d call it strictly fairly-clued – but the most enjoyable aspect is the way these are filtered through the narration by the Reverend Joseph Colchester, aforementioned doddery vicar and old friend of Matthew Barry’s. He is frequently somewhat bemused and slightly shocked at the goings on and, though professing Christian charity, seems to value decorum rather more (he is amusingly distressed when Judith sobs out her sins to him in a thoroughly soggy and unladylike fashion).
Altogether, well worth both reading and using for a brisk game of GAD cliché bingo (warning: it is ill-advised to make it a drinking game, unless you have a spare, compatible liver, frosted and standing by).