Source: Review Copy (Ramble House)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Weirdest Item you have seen
This is my first experience of Afford’s work and something which immediately hit me when starting Blood on his hands (1937) was Afford’s flair for description, such as describing a train ‘like a linked string of flame-coloured jewels’ and a ‘twisting metal snake with the single flashing eye set in its head.’ The opening of the story concentrates on a man called Hans Von Rasch, a German medical student who has come to Australia to forget a troubling incident in his recent past. A need for money leads to him accepting a rather dubious post assisting a doctor who demands absolute secrecy and whose abode is remote, isolated and strongly gothic in feel, making me wonder whether this novel might continue in a Frankenstein-like vein. On the way, Rasch hears about an escaped prisoner, Oscar Dowling, who has bouts of insanity and during one of these moments murdered his wife and children, removing their hands in the process.
At this juncture we do not find out more about Rasch’s new job as instead the narrative moves to Melbourne where Judge Sheldon has been found murdered, stabbed through the back with a paper file (in a manner which suggests medical knowledge) and with his ear sliced off. Even more puzzling is that the room he was found in was locked from the inside, windows and doors and the only key was in the judge’s pocket. Something I particularly enjoyed about the story was the role of the newspaper reporters. They are not just simply nuisances to the detectives and instead they take an active part in the narrative discussing the case with each other in the way a detective would and later on in the story some of them become important witnesses. One of them which stood out for me was Bertha Fenton who doesn’t mince her words and is initially described in an unsympathetic manner:
‘a dumpy, untidily dressed, middle-aged woman with sharp, almost cunning features centring about an arrogant beak of a nose. With her mousy hair drawn back and cut short as a man’s Bertha Fenton looked every day her forty-three years.’
At the beginning she is quite desensitised to the horror of crimes due to her work, but this changes to an extent as the story progresses.
Although, the story mostly follows what Chief Inspector Read and his friend, Jeffery Blackburn does (the latter being a mathematics Professor who sometimes does some amateur sleuthing), the narrative does switch over at points to Fenton and a number of times she spots something before they do. It was perhaps a shame (though only a minor one) that she wasn’t allowed to act upon this information more.
Something which crops up in the case quite quickly is that the judge was not a good man, being an unashamedly unfaithful husband, who had women frequently coming to his private flat. Yet, why do these women only stay for a matter of minutes? This is odd considering what everyone is suggesting. This side of him understandably makes him unpopular with his rather estranged wife and step-daughter, the latter of whom says ‘this murder doesn’t mean a thing in my life.’ Though perhaps this changes when police suspicion is directed at her. The investigation is initially drawn to tracking down one of the judge’s last known visitors, a bearded man. Tracing the identity of this man is at the heart of solving this mystery, though Read and Blackburn will take many wrong turns until they find the right person. This is not aided by the fact that this particular killer is especially adept at leaving a confusing trail of evidence which points to different suspects.
Nor is the killer happy with only one death, striking two more times in a similarly brutal and clever manner. But what links these deaths? Is it a case of certain figures knowing too much or is there an event in the past which binds them all together? And which event could this be? Afford provides a number of ideas on this score and the final solution successfully pulls the previous events in the book together in a way which left me thinking, ‘ooh that’s sneakily good’. The choice of killer is brilliant in my opinion as it sort of stares you in the face yet you just don’t see it (well I didn’t anyway) and there is a wide variety of different suspects to focus on, including the potentially malevolent servant:
‘If, as Chief Inspector Read had said, this was a chapter from a detective serial, then Hoskins, who entered the room… was well cast in the role of sinister servant.’
Moreover, the pace and tension mounts as the story progresses and although the feel of tale becomes distinctly more modern once the narrative shifts to Melbourne, I still think the gothic atmosphere of the novel’s opening remains in the figure of bearded man who seems to glide through the story in a sinister way.
Overall I think this is a very good story and is strong from a locked room/ impossible crime point of view, but more importantly for me, Afford does not become bogged down by the mechanics of the crimes (though they are examined and explained well) and his narrative style and characterisation is engaging and has depth. I’m not sure I got to know much about the inner world of Jeffrey Blackburn, but it didn’t really matter in this particular story, as the action and tension compels you to read on. My only query is that in this book the newspaper reporters seem to have incredibly easy access to crime scenes, with the police allowing them to stand in the crime scenes as they work. But again this is not a very significant issue. I also enjoyed the references Afford makes to other detective fiction writers and characters and I thought his use of the metafictional was sophisticated as he wove it into his narrative, especially into his characters’ conversations naturally, without it having a massively artificial air. This is definitely a book I would recommend and I will certainly be returning to this author again.
Tom Cat at Beneath the Stains of Time has reviewed some of Afford’s work:
As has JJ at The Invisible Event: