Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blue Object
I have known of this author for a while now, but this is my first time reading his work and I had heard a lot of good things about the Case for Three Detectives (1936). The story is narrated by a man called Townsend who becomes embroiled in a murder whilst attending a cocktail party by Dr and Mary Thurston. From the outset this is a novel which sends up the conventions of what is now called the Golden Age detective novel and to a smaller extent the Had I But Known suspense genre. For example, often in these types of stories the narrator retrospectively reads suspense and deceit into the events leading up to the murder, yet in the case of Townsend he is keen to emphasise the very opposite:
‘I cannot pretend that there was anything sinister in the atmosphere that evening. Nothing of the sort that is supposed to precede a crime. Nobody walked about looking furtive, no whispered quarrels were interrupted, no mysterious strangers lurked near the house. Although afterwards, as you may imagine, I went over the events of the day again and again in my mind, I could remember nothing which might have served as a warning, nothing extraordinary in anyone’s behaviour.’
Yet what I have noticed with this parody of detective fiction is that it begins by flouting the conventions of the genre, only to then embody those very conventions in a parodic fashion. For instance, the novel opens with Townsend emphasising how unsuspicious things are, yet later in this first chapter and in the second a number of odd events occur (more on that later). Furthermore, near the end of the novel, a HIBK moment does occur in relation to the ‘appallingly relevant’ discussion at the cocktail party on detective fiction. During this discussion, another guest called Alec Norris (an unsuccessful author), is contemptuous of detective novels, saying that in real life the police are rarely baffled and that these stories are ‘so artificial’ and ‘so unrelated to life,’ with every least likely killer used. Norris thinks murder ‘has become a game’ in detective fiction, but I think every fan of the genre will be siding with another guest, the Thurston’s lawyer, Sam Williams, who replies ‘that may be so. But I enjoy the game.’
The remaining guests at the party are the Vicar, Mr Rider (who lives nearby and is of a Puritan persuasion) and David Strickland, a wastrel who is doted on by the Thurston’s. Although there is more than a hint that not everything is as it appears in Strickland’s relationship with Mary. In terms of staff at the Thurstons, who influence the plot, there is the butler Stalls, Enid the Maid and the chauffeur, Fellowes and it is with the latter Mary is seen to be conversing, supposedly on setting rat traps. But this suggestion is belied by Mary’s flushed and unhappy body language.
Death strikes much later in the evening of the cocktail party, with many people having already gone to bed, save for Williams, Dr Thurston and Townsend. A series of female screams are heard and they all rush to Mary Thurston’s bedroom. But it is bolted on the inside and when they are able to enter they find Mary, dead, her throat slit. But where did the killer go? Various factors make this a fiendish locked room crime, especially since all the household can be accounted for within 2 minutes of the screams. Even more baffling the phone lines have been cut and along with the knife, there is a broken light bulb on the lawn outside Mary’s bedroom. Consequently, the household have ended up in the very sort of murder mystery Norris abhors, with even the vicar adding to the bizarreness of the situation when he is found kneeling by the corpse a while later, when he should have already been at home a long time ago.
But now it is time for the detectives! We have the village policeman, Sergeant Beef, whom the household decry from the beginning, especially when he is fairly sure of who did it after a brief investigation of the crime scene. The inhabitants are therefore much happier when ‘quite early the next morning those indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed’ arrive. In keeping with the parodic aims of the novel, the three private detectives/ amateur sleuths are parodies of other famous fictional investigators. No prizes for guessing who they are parodying. First up is Lord Simon Plimsoll who ‘stepped out of the foremost of three Rolls-Royces, the second of which contained his man servant… Butterfield.’ Townsend is a ‘little startled at… [Plimsoll’s] idiom… and it took… [him] a few moments to believe that this was his natural mode of speech.’ Our second investigator is M. Amer Picon whose ‘physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg shaped that [Townsend is] … surprised to find a nose and mouth in it all, but half expect[ing] its white surface to break and release a chick.’ The final amateur sleuth is ‘a small human pudding… [named] Monsignor Smith,’ who is described as having ‘a number of parcels and… a green parasol.’ Townsend says of him that ‘for childishly innocent as this man seemed, he had… a knack of saying the most disturbing things.’
Townsend observes all three as they work on the case individually, focusing on different aspects or suspects and collectively when they cross examine the suspects (with Plimsoll being a dominant participant of this task, whilst Monsignor Smith sleeps for most of it). Between them numerous clues and secrets are unearthed. Blackmail, misplaced jewellery, the history of Mary’s first marriage and illicit relationships. Yet throughout all of this Sergeant Beef is quietly confident of his solution, going so far as arranging for an arrest warrant, though he says he is obliged to wait until the other investigators have presented their solutions. The novel concludes in the library, with all the investigators presenting their theories. But which one will be correct?
I think Bruce is on the whole very successful with his parody and Townsend is an excellent narrator – though what an unintentional disperser of red herrings he is! It is through Townsend’s thoughts on the investigations that a lot of the parodying can be seen, as his thoughts make the text more self-conscious of the detective fiction tropes it is employs. For example Townsend notes how the atmosphere lightens when Plimsoll arrives: ‘And I have gathered that this is the experience of most people intimately connected with a murder which a first rate private detective… is investigating’ and as the story progresses Townsend is certainly bitten by the detective bug, being relieved when Thurston leaves after being questioned as ‘bereavement, on these occasions, as I have often noticed, is a bore; detection is what matters.’ And in fact this example encapsulates the Golden Age detective fiction trope where many of the suspects find the murder investigation a thrilling or exciting experience.
Bruce also does a first rate job of parodying Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown, as he gives a lot of attention to the details, though I think his Poirot parody is his best. It was also amusing to see how Bruce envisioned the investigators interacting with each other and one has the feeling that Father Brown is the least popular, especially with Wimsey or rather Plimsoll. Although one thing I notice in this parody was that the sensitiveness in Wimsey and Poirot is removed from their caricatures, Plimsoll and Picon, but I guess that is part of parodying process. Additionally, Townsend is a very good lens to observe the detectives through, as initially he begins hero worshipping them, but as the tale proceeds his estimations of them are continually revaluated. Interestingly, Townsend also tries to emulate the methods of these detectives, though of course it does not get him very far. In regards to the explanations these detectives give, I think they are really good, as they are quite different from each other’s and they are plausible explanations, which are reminiscent of the ones they have used in cases they have solved in their own novels, particularly Poirot.
SPOILERS – The remaining paragraphs look at the ending/solution in more detail. The killer is not named but there are enough clues mentioned to ruin the story for those who haven’t read it.
Ultimately though Sergeant Beef is correct. On first reading how he solved it did feel a bit of a cheat, as it seems like he had information the others did not. But on reflection I think this information was not unobtainable and the others could have found it out. Normally in detective fiction the police are more forthcoming to the private investigators about their information, but for this story to work this couldn’t happen. I knew Sergeant Beef came up with the right solution before reading the story so at the back of my head I knew that the lines of investigation the detectives unearthed would be irrelevant or incorrect. Yet Bruce still managed to surprise me, coming up with a solution I never saw coming, which in some respects did feel quite Christie-like and Bruce’s final twist is excellent.
I think part of Bruce’s success in not making his killer fairly guessable is that he keeps our interactions with him to a minimum and the fact he is seen to be on the side of helping the police. Furthermore, Bruce also gets us to identify with and like the killer very early on when he expresses his approval of detective fiction and this is quite a subtle way of doing it as it is not so overt as to make us suspicious, but it does make us overlook him when deciding who did it. Looking at the correct solution as a whole I think it can be seen as a reversal or a variation on the method used in Israel Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery (1892), a method which is alluded to in the story by Townsend. Furthermore, a key clue for Sergeant Beef is finding evidence of red ink, which made me think of Poirot and the case he solves in Death on the Nile (1937). I initially thought this was part of the parody but then I realised that Death on the Nile was published after this novel, making me wonder whether the influence was the other way round. I think my only criticism is that the killer’s motivation is a bit weak and came out of nowhere. Furthermore, I don’t think Sergeant Beef can see this as a perfect investigation, as an event at the end of the novel, does make him culpable of negligence, though conveniently for him it is swept under the carpet.
But all in all it was a brilliant read and I would definitely recommend it.