Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Musical Instrument
It has been a long time since I have read a novel by Francis Durbridge. I would say this is more of a thriller than a detective novel and the plot of this story revolves around an infamous gang named The Front Page Men, who are named after a detective novel with the same name, written by an unknown person with the penname Andrea Fortune. This gang have been raiding banks and jewellers as well as kidnapping rich people’s children and they are not afraid to shoot those who get in the way or try to contact the police. They also leave a calling card with their gang name on. On the case at Scotland Yard are Chief Inspector Charles Cavendish Mackenzie Reed and Inspector Hunt, amongst others. The latest crime affected by the gang is the kidnapping of Sir Norman Blakeley’s son and it is while the police are waiting to observe the drop off of the ransom that Paul and his wife, Steve Temple enter the case, as their town flat in Mayfair is used as an observation post. The drop off though goes horribly wrong when the police find the murdered body of Norman in a telephone box – killed due to contacting the police.
From this early stage in the book a number of characters are brought to the attention of the reader. Some of which you can tell for certain are part of the gang, whilst others although suspicious, ultimately have an agenda of their own, which is not always strictly legal. This cast of characters range from publishers wives, piano tuners, businessmen and there’s even a potentially rogue reverend. All of these initial events all get Paul itching to investigate, contacting various less than lawful acquaintances for information. Though unfortunately this endangers his own life amongst others and it could be said that Paul is not very successful at looking after his informants. As we get a better idea of who is in the gang (though we do not know who the leader is), we are also privy to their next targets and I did end up feeling embarrassed for the police and Paul who fall for some pretty obvious ruses, though readers know that eventually events will turn in the favour of law and order.
This is a very plot focused and fast paced story, with lots of actions as the sleuths react to changing circumstances. The social milieu of this novel spans from the upper to the lower echelons of society, though both ends of the spectrum are shown as less than morally perfect, frequently being motivated by greed. Like a few other amateur sleuthing duos I have read about lately, Steve does not contribute much to the investigation (though she is involved in a twist at the end of the story which I guessed early on). Steve spends most of the novel visiting friends or shopping, buying anything it seems as long as it is in a sale, such as a machine which peels oranges. Paul and Steve’s relationship is a bit cloying, something I don’t remember from the other Temple book I read ages ago. This makes me wonder whether this is perhaps not Durbridge at their best. Although published within the Golden Age period, this is not a “cosy” book as the violence perpetuated by the gang increases as the book progresses and the police begin closing in and even people within the gang itself are not safe from it. There is not a great deal of in depth characterisation in this book, but then identity in this book is quite slippery and externally very changeable. However there was one bit of character description that intrigued me and it concerns Paul’s publisher’s wife, Ann:
‘His wife… was in some ways a useful sort of antidote. Self-centred and sophisticated, she waved aside all his fears and petty worries until he eventually began to see them in their correct proportions. Almost ash-blonde, and extremely good-looking, Ann Mitchell obviously spent as much on her appearance as would maintain a fair-sized working-class family.’
I think this interested me because of the way Durbridge writes negative qualities in a more positive way and arguably this is an example of the underlying humour in the story.
The plot was average but nothing special until the ending where Durbridge pulls off a number of twists and surprises that I mostly didn’t see coming and in fairness the reader is prepared for them. The ending is unusually left open ended in some respects and kind of shows Paul’s unconventional attitude towards legal justice. Although there is one aspect of the ending which rather annoyed me in terms of gender roles, but I can’t say anymore without giving away a spoiler. Not a bad read due to the action and pace, but for readers new to Durbridge I think I would start elsewhere.