Writers using their past careers and experiences to influence their work is sufficiently common to almost be classed as an author’s cliché. Crime fiction is no different. Ngaio Marsh drew upon her time in the theatre, Juanita Sheridan her experiences in Hawaii and Christopher St John Sprigg on his knowledge of planes and aerodromes. In the case of this novel, When the Wind Blows (1949), Cyril Hare (pseudonym for Alfred Gordon Clark) used both his knowledge of law, gained through years of being a barrister and a judge and his love of music. Like many of his other works such as Tragedy at Law (1942), the solution to the crime hinges upon an aspect of the law. It is therefore unsurprising that the amateur sleuth is a barrister (now semi-retired) called Francis Pettigrew. However, before introducing the novel proper, I want to pause to look at the dedicatee, Arnold Goldsbrough. Usually I tend to overlook this part of the novel, but this time I decided to find out who the mystery person was. In keeping with the musical theme of the novel, Goldsbrough, it turns out, was the organist at Clark’s wedding to Mary Lawrence in 1933 at St. Martin in the Fields. This story also includes an organist, but hopefully this is where the parallels end as this character is a renowned womaniser.
When the Wind Blows (1949) opens with the amateur detective, Francis Pettigrew, however, I felt this story got off to a shaky start, as unlike in other novels featuring Pettigrew, in this book, he is not introduced in an entirely likable way. In my opinion he comes across as bragging as one of the first things we are reminded of is that he married a comfortably well off woman, young enough to be his daughter. The musical theme of the novel is introduced straight away, as through his wife’s love of music leading to her joining the Markshire Orchestral Society, Pettigrew is asked or rather harangued by the society’s committee to become their honorary treasurer. Many of the key characters of the novel are therefore introduced through one of their meetings to discuss the upcoming concert:
• Mrs Basset, social snob, who is in charge of the society. Like Anne Elliot’s father in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817) who is obsessed with the Baronetage, Mrs Bassett is thoroughly conversant with Debrett and enjoys tracking down people’s aristocratic links.
• Mr Dixon, Society’s secretary, who knows a lot about organising musical events, but takes little interest in music itself. Mr Dixon’s lack of musical interest is tolerated due to his aristocratic connections, even more so as he has recently practically become the next in line to a title.
• Clayton Evans, the orchestra’s poor sighted conductor. Mrs Bassett is devoted to him.
• Mr Ventry, keen organist and lover of women, gets to play a solo in the concert due to the funds he provides the society.
It is decided at the meeting that Lucy Carless, a famous violinist will also be playing a solo at the concert, accompanied by her husband Lawrence Sefton. However, tensions are already revealing themselves as it turns out that Carless used to be married to Mr Dixon. Another character with a past connection to Lucy Carless, is Tadeusz Zbartorowski, a Polish man Mrs Roberts recommends to fill the role of first clarinettist. Again tensions arise as Mr Ventry wants Johnny Clarkson to play this role, but his suggestion is dismissed. However, his intentions are slightly less than honourable as his reason for wanting Clarkson to have the role is to give him an opportunity to visit Clarkson’s wife.
The time of the concert draws near, with suitable predicaments dogging the way; the Assizes potentially happening at the same time and place as the rehearsals and outbursts from both Carless and Zbartorowski, requiring a new clarinettist to be found. However, these obstacles are overcome, the concert will begin in a few hours and Carless states her preference to be left alone beforehand. We can all guess what is going to happen next… Lucy Carless is found strangled to death in her dressing room. The suspects are numerous; is it a case of a jealous husband, a spurned lover or flirt? Or perhaps it is revenge for past events? What we as readers do know that it will not be a simple case for either Inspector Trimble or Francis Pettigrew to solve.
The majority of the novel post murder focuses on Inspector Trimble’s investigations, aided by Sergeant Tate and overall I think I preferred their involvement in the case to Pettigrew’s. Inspector’s Trimble’s work is portrayed engagingly and humorously at times, as it takes time for him to work amicably with Tate. There are also what can be classed as set comic scenes such as when he attempts to question Zbartorowski at Mrs Roberts’ house. Conversely, Pettigrew’s presence in the investigation is minor and the answers he holds are withheld from the reader until the end, meaning we don’t really know what he is doing. The solution to the case does require both information gathered by Inspector Trimble and Pettigrew but Pettigrew’s is fairly obscure and not within the grasp of the average reader. Ultimately, the case requires the reader to know about the instruments required for musical scores, obscure points of law and an understanding of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850), amongst other things. I am not such a reader, although I did have an idea who it could be, just not the relevant information to support such a hypothesis.
Rating: 3.5/5 (I did find it an interesting crime and set of events, with well-drawn characters. Inspector Trimble’s investigative efforts were particularly enjoyable, However, I think this time round Pettigrew’s exertions were not up to their usual engaging standards and the withholding of information, made his involvement oblique.)