Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Staircase
It has been a long time since I have read a Pamela Branch novel, but having thoroughly enjoyed Lion in the Cellar (1951), returning to this author is always something I have been planning on doing. The Wooden Overcoat (1951), like this other novel is set within a comically maverick world where traditional ideas and attitudes on what is right and wrong are turned upside down, particularly those concerning murder. This is established from the very beginning of the novel when Benjamin Cann, having just been acquitted for a murder he actually committed, is invited to join the Asterisk Club by Clifford Flush, a body of people who share one thing in common: they have all committed murder and gotten away with it. His host is very brazen and breezy about his own murder victims and their fates making this a dark comedic novel. Cann though does not quite fit the mould of light hearted killer and in the opening of the novel despite having a nonchalant attitude towards his ordeal referring to it as a ‘a pain in the neck’ and suggesting that the jury were ‘enough to give anybody the hump,’ he is also shown to be still coming to terms with how close he escaped the noose, with his ‘hands shaking’. The Asterisk Club provides a number of free amenities on the condition that members sign over their property and wealth, which gets passed onto the club when they die. This element of the setup particularly alarms Cann and he is not particularly fond of the other members, except for Lilli Cluj, who is from Budapest. The other members are Naomi Barratt, Colonel Quincey and the Creaker, who is so called because of a leg injury. Despite being a murderer Cann finds it hard to associate or identity himself with them:
‘Act natural – they think you’re another. So you are, aren’t you?… I am not. I didn’t mean it. It doesn’t count.’
Although taking advantage of the lodgings next door, he only plans to stay the one night, not only because he does not want to join the club but because of the hostility he is receiving from the landladies, Bertha Berko, who is married to Hugo and Fan Hilford, who is married to Peter, who has also quickly spotted who Cann really is. This recognition in fact spurs Peter on to get his wife to promise to evict Cann the following morning. However this all goes wrong when Fan finds Cann dead, murdered with poisoned cocoa. Her thoughts immediately leap to the arsenic which has been left in the house by the rat catcher Mr Beesum and then to her husband who displayed such animosity – did his request for her to get rid of Cann mean something far more sinister? All of this leads to her confiding in her friend Rex, a ballet performer, rather than calling in the police and together they attempt to get rid of the body. Yet for the first of many times this fails horribly. Things become more complicated though, when Rex and Fan try to surreptitiously move the body to the air raid shelter at the dead of night, only to find Bertha is trying to do the same thing with her own corpse, that of Lilli, who was lodging there and had been turning both Hugh and Peter’s heads. Eventually all five become aware of the situation and thoughts turn to the residents of the Asterisk Club, whose names all start to sound familiar for all the wrong reasons and they realise that they’re ‘up against the professionals’. Yet in the Asterisk Club the contrary is being thought, with Flush seeing themselves as having ‘become involved with the insufferable amateur’ murderer and is concerned their activities will bring unwanted attention to the club.
The remainder of the novel charts Hugo, Rex, Peter, Fan and Bertha’s attempts to get rid of the bodies and the pages detailing their efforts to dispose of the body in the countryside are hilarious with school children and farmers with shotguns providing plenty of obstacles. The phrase if you don’t succeed try try try again is an apt one for this band of wannabe body disposers, whose machinations are consistently thwarted. The Asterisk Club also becomes muddled in with theses attempts when they try to execute plans of their own. The frequent moving of bodies in this comic fashion reminded me a lot of the Hitchcock film The Trouble with Harry (1955) and in a way the narrative style occasionally mirrors a film in that it sometimes covers a number of hours using almost bullet points of text (without the actual bullet points), which shift from character to character, place to place, time to time, which I found quite interesting. But who actually did the killings? Is it one of the Asterisk Club, who has gone back to their murderous ways? Or is it someone within the house, using the club next door as a scape goat? And will they ever be able to get rid of the bodies?
The ending of this novel is clever and I enjoyed it, feeling it fitted in well with the ironic and comical world it is set in. However, the narrative style employed in this section is a little hard to understand if you read very quickly, so I would definitely recommend reading these few pages a little slower. I enjoyed the little quirky and comic details Pamela Branch includes in her novel such as having a murderous thoughts jar in the Asterisk Club rather than a swear jar. In addition on the whole she puts considerable effort into her characterisation and the characters’ relationships, especially those of Hugo, Bertha, Fan and Peter, with Branch expertly portraying the tensions and petty feuds which arise in shared accommodation. Although, I think Branch’s characterisation is a little poorer in her international characters, especially Lilli, who does come across as stereotyped and wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film. Perhaps because she was writing a comic crime novel which is supposed to be ridiculous, Branch thought such characters would add to the absurdity of the piece. But due to Lilli’s early death this does not become a large bugbear for the reader in my opinion, though that is not to say I wouldn’t have appreciated more sophisticated characterisation in this area. Overall though I would definitely recommend this and the Lion in the Cellar as entertaining one sitting reads which definitely provide plenty of laughs, an out of the ordinary plot and mostly deftly created characters.