I was keen to return to this author, since another of his works, Quick Curtain (1934), was the first novel I reviewed for my blog (see link below) and I had really enjoyed Melville’s writing style. The setting of this piece, a travelling circus, also intrigued me, it not being a common scene for fictional murder in the Golden Age of detection. The only other text from that time I could think of which significantly involved a circus was Gladys Mitchell’s The Rising of the Moon (1945). Like Quick Curtain, the narrative is mostly written in a satirical, whimsical and humorous manner, with very little being taken seriously, including attitudes towards the crimes which take place. This novel perhaps goes even further though in some respects, bordering on the ridiculous and the absurd, not that this is in any way a bad thing. I don’t imagine there are many novels which include a priest sitting next to a sea lion called Horace at a beer and bangers (sausages) party. However there are some divergences in form/style as in Death of Anton (1936), firstly we have a new detective, a Detective Inspector Minto, who is aided in a minor capacity by his brother Father Robert Minto (who I’ve wondered whether might be a jokey reference to Chesterton’s Father Brown). An ironic element of the novel is that the murderer (unnamed) confesses to Father Minto soon after the crime takes places, yet under the rules of the confessional Father Minto is not allowed to say anything. A more important divergence though is that at the start of this novel I would have said it was entirely like Quick Curtain in its light heartedness, but as the story progresses there are perhaps some more poignant and darker moments, deaths and injuries which are not just signifiers for the detective to interpret and actions and decisions taken by the detective which are not dubious for their lack of respect for correct legal procedure but for their blasé attitude towards the protection of other innocent people. This was not a feature I expected, but I think it actually made it a better book as a consequence.
Death of Anton begins with a structure which parallels that of Quick Curtain. Whereas in the latter, the readers’ notions of the theatre are disabused, in Death of Anton, our nostalgic ideas of that circus are similarly crushed in a satirical manner. Moreover, Quick Curtain begins with the run up to a theatre performance moving swiftly from character to character and in this current novel, the circus troupe’s journey to their latest lodgings provides the reader with an opportunity to meet in turn many of the principal characters involved from the circus:
- Anton, real name Herr Ludwig Kranz and soon to be corpse, is one of the main stars of the circus doing an act involving 7 Bengal tigers;
- Dodo, real name Ernest Mayhew, outside of work more closely resembles a business man or school inspector than a clown which is what his job in the circus is;
- Mr Joseph Carey, the authoritative circus owner, whose hobbies include alcohol and women (‘women are his profession – the circus is just a side-line’) and
- Loretta and Lorimer, another star act in the show and who are trapeze artists.
The ground is well established for Anton’s death, with his tigers acting out of character and the narrator making a foreshadowing comment:
‘Perhaps – who knows – the seven Bengal tigers are wiser than most of us, and have an inkling of the tragedy that is coming to their cage so very soon.’
But before Anton is found dead in the tiger cage, many different motives for killing him are developed. Rumours of him sleeping with a married woman, professional jealousies, blackmail and mysterious men whistling outside Mr Carey’s caravan door are all potential reasons for murdering Anton. Detective Inspector Minto is introduced into the novel, not in his official capacity, but as a man under obligations to attend his sister’s wedding and throughout the novel, the investigation of the crime is interspersed by wedding planning. Minto arrives at the scene of crime, after having been invited to Dodo’s after show party and it is during the course of this, that Anton is discovered. The circus troupe are keen to see this as an unfortunate accident. But a group of cowering and frightened tigers and three bullet holes suggest otherwise. Several guests mysteriously leave the party at the time of the murder and it is these people Minto focuses on in his less than orthodox investigation.
In the footsteps of Mr Wilson, the detective of Quick Curtain, Detective Inspector Minto, takes a very unconventional approach to solving the case. Rather than calling in the murder officially, Minto promises Mr Carey to investigate the situation privately, but then tells the local police about it, exhorting them to act as though they have heard nothing at all. Moreover, Minto has a rather flippant tone when interviewing the suspects:
“But… I’m not under suspicion am I?”
“Good heavens yes… Of course you’re under suspicion. Clark Gable is under suspicion. So is President Roosevelt. So is the Emir of Transjordania and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.”
As I mentioned earlier, soon after the murder occurs, the murderer confesses to Minto’s brother, Father Robert and this becomes a comic element of the story, especially during a lunch with his siblings where he tries to maintain a poker face as they discuss the various suspects. Though unlike Chesterton’s Father Brown, Father Minto has no interest in amateur sleuthing and only intervenes when his brother is convinced a man is guilty when otherwise. However, despite the circumstantial evidence such as them being responsible for the gun used to kill Anton, being renowned for their dislike of the victim and supposedly leaving a signed confession, all seasoned crime fiction readers know that at half way through the novel this man cannot possibly be the guilty party.
Detective Inspector Minto’s frivolous attitude to detection only begins to become problematic and troubling near the end of the case, where the investigation and his personal life seem set to collide. His plan to catch the killer involves using an innocent person as bait, a plan he sets in motion before even asking their permission and is very blasé about the dangers involved. Considering the consequences of this plan, his actions could be regarded as rather foolhardy and only because it is a comic crime novel, the darkest of repercussions are mostly avoided. Along with this plan, a dramatic ending closes the tale, involving our group of tigers, assault, mass arrests and a precarious trapeze act. Lightness and comedy is restored though in a suitably Melville manner concluding with Father Robert taking on the role of a reluctant Watson as DI Minto explains how he solved the case. The fact Father Minto has known all the time who committed the killing, is beside the point for his brother.
The role the tigers play in the novel I thought was particularly interesting, as first of all the leader tiger of the ambush (collective noun for tigers, along with the word streak), Peter’s thoughts are shown to us readers temporarily, which I liked. Moreover, there are points in the story where the narrator clearly transmits the idea that animals are frequently much better behaved than humans and show many virtuous qualities. Aside from Peter’s one moment of transparency, the tigers play an important yet silent role, as they were all witnesses to the death of Anton and therefore know who killed him, but cannot communicate this verbally. Although it is intimated at the denouement of the novel that they at last found a very physical and direct way of communicating who committed the crime. This element of the tale reminded me of the Agatha Christie novel, Dumb Witness (1937) where a dog is witness to a crime and in his own way tries to reveal his knowledge to Poirot. I think Melville, whether intentionally or not actually builds up a certain amount of sympathy for the tigers in the novel, especially since the majority of them are young cubs and this murder has painful repercussions for them also, which is one of the sadder moments of the book.
The comic exchanges that I and many other readers have loved in Quick Curtain are also present in this novel, where anything and everything can be joked about or satirised from the trivial:
“Grapefruit… or Porridge?”
“What’s the name of the chef?”
“In that case, grapefruit… If it had been McKenzie or McDonald, we might have risked the porridge. Being Bernstein, we’ll have the grapefruit.”
To more serious current and topical matters:
‘He…started to read how right the Government had been in dealing with a recent tricky international situation. The Government, he gathered, had given a lead to the other nations of the world by sitting on the fence and doing nothing. Many other Government would no doubt have dashed in wildly and done something in the recent spot of bother; the British Government, by doing nothing, had restored confidence and brought relief to what had threatened to be a very serious situation.’
Humour is also incorporated into text through Melville’s choice of typography, as at one point in the novel, Minto tries to clear his muddled thoughts about the case by writing down his ideas in a Q & A survey format:
‘Q: Does that mean that he did it?
A: Judging from the standards of the average mystery novel, yes. Going by the ordinary standards of detection, no.’
There are so many instances of brilliant humour in this novel that it is hard to not to want to quote most of the book. An excellent description in the novel concerns Detective Inspector Minto:
‘There was a sort of elephantine grace in Mr Minto’s movements, like the late Mr G. K. Chesterton dancing a minuet.’
I’ll restrain myself now. No more quoting I promise. Humorous exchanges such as the first example, I think, highlight Melville’s talent for dialogue and it is unsurprising that he was also a playwright and writer of musicals and revues and in fact his output for the stage and TV was far larger than his crime fiction.
Rating: 5/5 (The writing style and humour is up to the same high standard as Quick Curtain. The story has a lot of unusual points and the darker moments of the novel make it a more interesting and complex book than it might first appear. Alan Melville is definitely an author worth looking at.)
Follow this link to find out more about Melville’s Quick Curtain: