Cork on the Water (1951) by Macdonald Hastings

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Fishing Gear

A 1990s reprint by Greycliff Publishing
A 1990s reprint by Greycliff Publishing

Macdonald Hastings, the penname of journalist and war correspondent, Douglas Edward Macdonald (1909-1982), is an author who was new to me and it was also a fairly new experience to read a mystery centred round a protagonist who ensures insurance claims are genuine. Hastings wrote around 30 books, some of which were mystery novels featuring his series’ sleuth Montague Cork, who is the general manager of the Anchor Accident Insurance Company. Although written in the 1950s I think this story has a strong Golden Age period flavour in its opening chapter, which include a map, though the remainder of the novel is within the thriller branch of the genre, being more in keeping with the tone and atmosphere of Francis Durbridge’s work than with other mystery novels set in the fishing milieu such as Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice (1955) and Harriet Rutland’s Bleeding Hooks (1940), both of which are decidedly more detection focused.

The novel opens well with Colonel Johnson having a sinister surprise during his annual fishing trip to Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. Whilst trying to land the fish of a lifetime, he instead hooks a week old corpse, which is later identified as Gabriel Daggers, an eccentric and not entirely pleasant man who often fished alone and was supposed to have gone away with some friends for a few days. Accidental drowning is the presumed cause of death and that is what it would have remained if it hadn’t of been for the life insurance policy Daggers took out 5 months previously. A number of features surrounding the death prick Montague Cork’s interest, whose company has the policy. Daggers was a healthy young adult and ex commando, as well as an experienced angler – is it likely he would have died this way? Cork is also intrigued by the fact that Dagger has no close relations and chooses to leave the £25,000 insurance claim money to a prima ballerina, Anne Pryde, if she does not marry within the next three years and a further interview with her confirms for Cork his suspicions surrounding Dagger’s supposed death.

Pryde’s relationship with Dagger is tantalising in what we know and don’t know about it. Is she his accomplice or is she one of his victims? Their history is intriguing in what it reveals about her and Dagger, who draws her to him by doggedly following her from performance to performance over the continent. The narrative’s action then moves to Sutherland and the River Edendale where the body was found and it seems like there are more people than Pryde and Cork who are interested in the death, though for more inexplicable and undefined sinister and nefarious reasons. The thriller angle of the book comes into full swing at this point and over the course of two days, as different groups of people with varying goals and interests vie for supremacy, it is unsurprising there are casualties along the way. It remains to be seen who is left standing at the end and whether Cork will be able to unravel the mystery or get caught up in others’ machinations.

Overall Thoughts

The novel is set in 1949, so WW2 is a theme which crops up more as the story progresses. This was an interesting angle but unfortunately I don’t think Hastings mined this area for its full potential, as he tends to focus on present day action of his characters, rather than the back story and the characters’ psychology. That is not to say these areas are implausible or confusing, but I would say in particular the character psychology is underdeveloped in places, especially with Dagger himself. The back story also works and is engaging but I felt it was swept over a bit too quickly.

One area of character psychology which did interest me was with the triangle of characters comprising of Pryde, Daggers and Cork’s assistant Robert Shipley. Throughout the story until quite near the end, Pryde’s behaviour and attitudes are perhaps the greater mystery of the novel, as it is hard to pin her down in terms of how she perceives Daggers and how she wants this mystery to unfold out. In a rare moment where we get to view her perspective more closely, it is interesting to see that Pryde is far from supportive of the thriller, man of action approach Cork and Shipley are taking to the case: ‘So Robert was past reasoning too. He was carrying on as if this was a game of cowboys and Indians…’ Pryde wants to take a more nurturing and sympathetic approach to the case, realising the damaged nature of Dagger. Near the end of the novel Cork temporarily aligns Dagger and Robert with one another saying they are ‘one of the products of the world war,’ being men who are aware of their physical prowess and are armed with the knowledge of how to kill and it is interesting to see how this similarity pans out in both these characters and looking back there are moments where they converge despite being opponents.

Something Hastings does well for most of the story is to make fishing and angling an interesting milieu for those who are not interested in angling as a hobby. This is particularly evident in the opening chapter of the book. However, I think he does fall down when it comes to the end of the story. He attempts to retrieve the more comic and light hearted tone of the beginning of the novel, but this unfortunately is ineffective and not very appropriate. Moreover, he adds an appendix to the end of the book where Colonel Johnson proceeds to bore the reader with a treatise or paper on salmon fishing. This has to be one of the most boring ways to end a book ever and I admit that I stopped reading after the first page and half of this. Considering the drama Hastings creates, the ending is rather disappointing. Additionally although a very active book with an action focus, the action itself does become a little mundane at points and I think the pacing could have improved. There are a number of good points to the book and it does start well, the style in particular is quite entertaining to read, such as when Hastings dismantles Cork’s grandiose imaginings with dull reality:

‘Mr Cork had a notion that the dressing-rooms of lovely prima ballerinas were gilded boudoirs, waist deep in flowers, with Recamier couches and ornate mirrors… Tidied up, Anna Pryde’s dressing room would have served as a cell for a nun.’

Cork himself also has his amusing moments, but I think the thriller plot reduced how effectively Hastings used this character, as this particular type of plot limits Cork’s actions and responses and does not maximise his strengths as a character.

Rating: 3.75/5

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