This month Rich at Past Offences gave me the honour of choosing the year for this month of his Crimes of the Century challenge. After much deliberation I picked 1954, giving me an opportunity to try an author new to me, Glyn Daniel, who aside from writing two mystery novels was first and foremost a scientist and archaeologist (the latter area of which is slightly intertwined into the story). The other mystery he wrote, The Cambridge Murders (1945) was published under the name Dilwyn Rees. During WW2 he worked in the RAF’s air photo unit, where his skills in interpreting aerial photographs of archaeologist sites came in very handy.
WW2 has recently finished at the start of Welcome Death (1954) and the residents of a village named Llanddewi are having a committee meeting, chaired by the Reverend Hugh Morris, to organise a welcome home party for the men returning home. In fact Morris’ son is one of the last men to return home, coming from Singapore, along with the local school teacher’s son Bryn Davies. Though this is a bitter sweet homecoming for him as not only is his mother dying of cancer, but his sister, Daphne died the previous year of blood poisoning. However, Morris’ son David, who was also an item with Daphne before the war separated them, is suspicious of her death and early on the reader is given hints that there was something scandalous about it. On his return he plans to get to the bottom of it.
The committee meeting is also useful at revealing to the reader all the underlying tensions in the village, most of which centre around Evan Morgan, a successful business owner. To consternation of many including his only family members, he is marrying again, to the considerably younger Janet Anderson, a prospect her own family are not keen on due to Morgan’s terrible reputation. He is a known womaniser, having had affairs with many women in the community and he even has an illegitimate son, named Mervyn, who in many ways he prefers to his legitimate one, Rees. Furthermore, his on and off lover and mother of Mervyn is none too pleased that he won’t be tying the knot with her. Added into the mix is a spate of poison pen letters as well, which causes one villager, Mary Cherrington to call in her nephew Professor Richard Cherrington, who she hopes will be able to solve the matter: ‘I know that anonymous letters occur from time to time in all communities, even, I believe in university circles – and my source for this is not only Miss Sayers.’
Things come to a head on the night of the welcome home party. Both the local doctor and police are called out to an isolated farm. This soon appears to be a hoax, however on their return to Llanddewi they are brought an unusual story. David Morris claims that he and Bryn received an anonymous note telling them to go to Manor house, Morgan’s home at 7pm. On arriving they find the home in darkness and by torchlight they find Evans, stabbed to death. Having heard a noise further inside the house these tough army veterans decide to investigate, an action which leads to one being knocked out and the other bound and gagged. Added to the electric being cut off in the home, the phone lines have also been cut.
Inevitably the Professor gets drawn into the case, which the local police are happy with, knowing he ‘has a flair for nosing out other people’s secrets.’ Although the police feel confident of solving the case quickly focusing on the inheritors of Morgan’s will, the Professor is less sure and the case becomes increasingly complex as the investigation unfolds. Unsurprisingly everyone and anyone seems to have ended up in and around the Manor house during the critical hour, with some of them having been lured there by more anonymous notes. Moreover, everyone regardless of guilt lies to a degree in their initial witness statements, meaning the Professor has his work cut out in finding the truth. This is a case littered with confessions and the body count doesn’t stop at Evans.
This is a novel which has very promising beginnings and up until the murder nearly a third of the way through the story is engaging, with a cast of interesting and interestingly conveyed characters. From the very first page we get a good sense of who people are and Daniel recreates committee dynamics well, with members talking at cross purposes and straying from the topic in hand. The tension prior to the murder is brilliantly held with a plethora of people feeling murderous towards Evans, with their even being a Berekley’s Trial and Error (1937) element.
However, as you have probably guessed there is the inevitable but. What lets this potentially great story down is the investigation of the crime. The narrative style begins to suffer becoming duller and the investigation itself feels like it is dragging on, which may be in part to the focus on alibis. Alibis are important but multiple conversations about a group of people’s alibis can get boring quite quickly and in some ways it feels like the investigators are going around in circles or digging over the same ground.
Furthermore, despite the great characterisation at the start of the novel, I didn’t think the character of the Professor was well drawn. He seemed to lack individually and came across as a bit flat, filled with amateur sleuth clichés. For example he is not keen on revealing the culprit as he sympathises with them: ‘When one sympathises with a murderer, when one likes him as a person, detection ceases to be an amusing intellectual game.’ Another examples is at the conclusion of the case when he is depressed and goes on his holiday to France, where he is lured into another case because it sounds so fantastical and like all amateur sleuths can’t help but be curious. Additionally he isn’t a very endearing character and he can across as a bit high handed.
A slight further niggle I had was with Mary Cherrington, the professor’s aunt. Her actions are annoyingly inconsistent. She invites Cherrington down to solve the poison pen letters but pretty much the morning after he has arrived she says she knows who did it but lacks evidence. The most she thinks he might do is scare the writer into stopping. I found this annoying as his point for being in the village disappears and then his entrance into the murder case feels subsequently forced.
I don’t think I have given up on this author entirely as the first third of the book does show that Daniel does have the ability to engage his readers. I therefore wonder if his earlier novel The Cambridge Murders is a stronger effort.