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Murders for March

Parties and post boxes make beguiling settings for this month’s mysteries


Post After Post-Mortem by E.D.R. Lorac 

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley 

The Empty Room by Brian McGilloway 

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

This selection brings a return from the British Library Crime Classics, and with two books on offer. Each is by a masterly writer whom the series has done much to publicise, E.D.R. Lorac and Anthony Berkeley, although, ironically, the Berkeley has similarities with the party guestlist conceit of Lorac’s later These Names Make Clues, which is also available in the series.

Post After Post-Mortem, E.D.R. Lorac (British Library Crime Classics, £8.99)

Post After Post-Mortem (1936; 2022 reprint, £8.99) is somewhat different to most novels by Lorac, the pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett who also wrote as Carol Carnac. Generally, she offered a strong sense of place, most typically of London, Devon or Cumbria. This novel is set in Oxfordshire, but that is a kind of everywhere for a story about an apparent suicide, that of the intellectual author Ruth Surray, during a house-party at her parent’s home. This is a world of authors and their associates, one in which Ruth’s suicide is confirmed by an inquest only to be challenged by a letter from the deceased delayed in the post (inconceivable today) so that it is received subsequently by one of her brother’s, a psychiatrist. This brings in Inspector Macdonald, and we have a well-plotted and ingenious story with a limited number of suspects, and Macdonald confronting someone of marked homicidal tendencies.

The story is of the deliberative type, as in the following chapter-close half-way through:

“He had, as tangible evidence, a coffee cup which no one could explain, a will on which the Roman numerals might have been altered, and a sheet of manuscript paper which might have been cut down. For intangible evidence he had the feeling that everybody was concealing something, that Fellowes’ accident was not fully explained, and that Montague’s visit to Brandon was somehow connected with the case.”

Murder stories and idée fixe politics do not mix

So, reader, concentrate! For, Lorac places her view in Macdonald’s mind “that murderers always make some mistake, always overlook something, which can be found if the searcher is only patient enough”. And again: “The intellectual who acts on his own judgement, and the devoted adherent who suppresses certain facts out of loyalty are as much a stumbling block in criminal investigation as the downright liar.” An impressive novel that deserves attention.

Jumping Jenny, Anthony Berkeley (British Library Crime Classics, £8.99)

Anthony Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny (1933, 2022, £8.99) provides Roger Sheringham with an opportunity for people-watching and then criminal investigation. An irritating party guest is dispatched on a gallows that is part of the artistic backdrop: Berkeley and I obviously know different hosts, not least because the costume party features prominent murderers such as Crippen. A lot of characters are thrown at you at once, so concentration is recommended. The quips and throwaways come thick and fast:

“Dr Chalmers, who appeared to have remarkable powers of blandly ignoring the observations of his wife … almost anything to do with marriage was either comedy or tragedy. It depended whether one was looking at it from the outside or the in…. That neurotic type stamps its own face very early.”

There is also room for social commentary at the party level, Mrs Lefroy declaring:

“our marriage-laws are all on the wrong lines. Marriage oughn’t to be easy and divorce difficult; it ought to be just the other way about. A couple ought to have to go up before a judge and say: ‘Please, we’ve lived together for two years now and we’re quite certain we’re suited to each other. We’ve got our witnesses here to swear that we’re terribly fond of each other and hardly ever quarrel, and we like the same things; and we’re both quite healthy…. We’re certain we know our own minds, so please can’t we get married now?’ And then they’d get their marriage nisi. And if by the end of six months the King’s Proctor couldn’t prove that they were unsuited after all, or didn’t really love each other, or would be better apart, their marriage could be made absolute.”

What was earlier termed “a hint of drama underneath the froth” shows itself. The writing can be flippant, to match Sheringham’s personality, as in “it was difficult to look on the elimination of a piece of blight like Ena Stratton as murder”, an argument that can no longer be relied upon with all the constabulary. I blame the courses on which they are sent, but there are more general reflections of interest to the writers and readers of the genre:

“He himself had been mounting guard over the only way of access to the roof. And had anyone passed along the landing and gone up there? Roger smiled to himself with exasperation. For the life of him he could not say. Of so much value is the evidence of the man on the spot. Roger Sheringham himself simply had not the faintest idea whether anyone had slipped out of the ball-room or not.”

And unsurprisingly so, for as the reader will recall, it was late and alcohol had been taken, and again and again.

The Empty Room, Brian McGilloway (Constable, £16.99)

Or, for another reflection:

“‘Yes, but it’s so easy to think of a feasible explanation of a fact, without knowing in the least whether it’s the right one, and without probably realising how many other feasible explanations of the same fact there may be. That was the trouble with the old-fashioned detective-story,’ said Roger, somewhat didactically. ‘One deduction only was drawn from each fact, and it was invariably the right deduction. The Great Detectives of the past certainly had luck. In real life one can draw a hundred plausible deductions from one fact, and they’re all equally wrong. However, we’ve no time to bother with that now.’”

Indeed not, but remember.

The Empty Room by Brian McGilloway (2022, Constable, £16.99) is very different in setting (psychological, chronological, social, physical et al) and tone; and moving from one to the other caused a jolt, but this is a novel for the long-turn. The beginning — the disappearance of a 17-year old Ellie from a party — is not gripping, but rather handled through excellent observation of mood and words, both focusing on her mother, Dora, who, in her own way, is increasingly revealed as a victim in many respects. The writing is unencumbered, which moves the story along, but there are some arresting phrases, as in “the terrible cruelty of kindness”. Dora’s changing stance is brought out very well as she comes to decide to solve the puzzle herself. The plot speeds up toward the close, a process aided by already-established characterisation, and by the organisational sequence of Three Days/Months/Years. A story that works.

Midnight at Malabar House, Vaseem Khan (Hodder and Stoughton, £16.99)

A very different context is to the fore in Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House (2020, Hodder and Stoughton, £16.99). Do not be distracted by his silly and all-too-frequent anti-British rambles, which only go to show that murder stories and idée fixe politics do not mix, contrasting with John Banville’s far more searching consideration in Snow of the interplay with the aftermath of empire.

In practice, Khan offers an interesting murder puzzle set in 1950 Bombay, involving the newly-established Indian system in the person of the first female detective. Finely-etched settings, a good cast, a convincing murder, police politics to the malignant fore and some good plot turns. The resolve is somewhat classic in bringing all the possible culprits together, but the solution is satisfactory as is the aftermath. Khan has launched a good series protagonist.

Jeremy Black has recently published The Importance of Being Poirot.

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