Glyn Carr (1908-2005) is an author I haven’t tried before, but have known about for a while and like his central sleuth, Abercrombie Lewker, Carr had a passion for outdoor pursuits and exploring, which comes across well in the book. There are 18 Lewker novels published, though the first three were more adventure stories than mysteries (Thanks for the info Santosh!). Also according to the Rue Morgue introduction there is one unpublished novel which has apparently been lost. Glyn Carr was the pseudonym for Frank Showell Styles and it is a name quite reminiscent of another mystery writer and to a lesser degree, Glyn Carr is known for a similar theme, that of writing locked room mysteries though his are of the ‘open aired’ variety, with impossibly difficult murders taking place on mountains.
Lewker is not only a mountain climber but he is also a famous actor-manager and he is planning a holiday climbing the Matterhorn. Yet his holiday takes on a new guise when his old friend, Sir Frederick Claybury, of the British Secret Service, asks him to do a small favour. During WW2, Lewker as part of the secret service worked with Leon Jacot, who was a member of the French Resistance. After the war Jacot did very well for himself in terms of money, fame and a beautiful spouse. Now he has turned his attention to politics and intends to create a new political party in France, which is worrying the Foreign Office considerably, who do not know his political leanings. It is therefore Lewker’s mission to reconnect with Jacot, who is also planning on climbing the Matterhorn, and find out what these leanings are. Also with Jacot is his wife, Deborah, his brother in law, John and his friends Comte and Countess de Goursac. Unsurprisingly though there is antagonism not only within this group, but with other hotel guests who are also acquainted with Jacot. Infidelity, jealousy, past grievances and even political death threats are all bubbling beneath the surface and seem to erupt into violence when Jacot foolhardily attempts to climb the Matterhorn singlehandedly in poor weather conditions. Yet his death is no accident, as it appears that before he fell he was suffocated by his own scarf. But who is responsible? Although the investigation is officially led by the Commissioner, Lewker is also asked to get involved due to his past secret service experience and his knowledge of climbing. There are a plethora of suspects with ranging motives and alibis and it soon seems like the Commissioner and Lewker are working on different lines. But which one of them has correctly identified the killer?
Lewker is a very enjoyable amateur sleuth, comical, yet not too comical. One particularly amusing moment is when he initially responds unfavourably to Claybury’s proposal of a diplomatic missions:
‘I am clairvoyant. I see it all. I am to take Jacot up the Matterhorn, dangle him over Italy on the end of a rope, and threaten to let go unless he tells me whether he favours Communism, Fascism, anarchism or government by, with, or from the people.’
Initially he comes across as a toned down Gervase Fen, as he sometimes acts incongruously to his surroundings, such as not seeing why his maid might find him wearing his climbing balaclava in his sitting room amusing. He also of course has a tendency to quote Shakespeare and I think he has a slight metafictional awareness of his own role. This comes about through his theatrical background and how he perceives his detecting/espionage role in this manner, seeing his differing roles as different characters from a play:
‘Was he (ran the undercurrents of his thoughts) the celebrated actor-manager on holiday, or the solid mountain-climber, or the astute secret agent? The first would be easy to play; the second – tweeds and taciturnity, with a grim set to the jaw and an occasional stare through narrowed eyelids at the challenging peaks; the third, catlike movements and of course an enigmatic smile.’
Furthermore when the murder occurs he envisages his role in the subsequent investigation as a part in a play:
‘Insensibly he found himself looking at it in terms of the dramatic. The stage was nicely set: the French climber-politician – not particularly to be lamented – murdered on the Matterhorn; the hint of a political gang at work; the charming ex-actress wife, now a widow; the Swiss Crime Commissioner himself enlisting the aid of the English amateur. By all the rules the English amateur’s was the fattest part. Could he cast himself for that part?’
Although the metafictional quality which pops up in the text from time to time is also demonstrated in other ways, as the Commissioner himself discusses detective fiction. Interestingly the Commissioner says that:
‘The reader of these tales, Herr Lewker, may perform his own detection in two ways. He may make his deductions from the evidence provided for the fictional detective, or he may make them from the way in which the author treats his fictional suspect…’
A sentiment which I found very pertinent when reading this story as I think I solved the mystery using the latter method, in particular picking up on linguistic clues, as well as character treatment. Yet this metafictional moment is also useful in revealing something of the Commissioner and the Lewker’s personalities. For example, this moment unveils Lewker’s need to be centre of attention:
‘Mr Lewker, whose readings in detective fiction were limited to such of the stories as had been converted into drama, accepted the role of listener with resignation if not with contentment.’
Whilst for the Commissioner it shows his confidence in police methods over amateur efforts, which of course makes for a deliciously ironic ending.
Another character which definitely deserves a mention is Mrs Fillingham, as she is a superbly comical character, especially when she informs Lewker she has been doing some sleuthing of her own, putting another guest under observation:
‘I’ll tell you. I’ve been doing a bit of sleuthing… You’ve been at it, haven’t you? I don’t see why your Aunty Bee shouldn’t have a crack. I used to be a Guider, you know – got my Woodcraft Badge and everything.’
She also elicits comedy from Lewker as well, as on briefly meeting her at breakfast one time he makes a mental note that ‘until the after-breakfast pipe has been smoked… a man is insufficiently armoured against the slings and arrows of outrageous females.’ Was there ever a time where people actually thought or spoke like this? I really hope there was.
Overall this was an enjoyable and entertaining mystery and the solution is very satisfying, though I think readers who have read quite a few mysteries like I have will probably be able to piece the solution together piece by piece, as the various smokescreens and red herrings are easy to identify. Not that this makes it a poor reading experience as the narrative style and characters are very engaging.