Michael Underwood was a new author to me and Underwood is the penname for John Michael Evelyn (1916-1992). Underwood was called to the Bar in 1939 and after WW2 he worked in the Department of Public Prosecution. He wrote 48 crime novels, which were influenced by his work and it is not surprising that this book begins and ends with a courtroom. Murder on Trial (1954) is the first novel in Underwood’s Simon Manton series, a series which would end in the 1960s after 12 more novels. Underwood had four more series characters, but only one of these characters, lawyer, Rosa Epton would go on to have a reasonably long series (16 books in total), whilst the others had comparatively smaller runs ranging from 2 to 5 novels. During the 1960s and until the 80s, he also wrote 8 non-series novels.
As I mentioned before this book commences with a trial, a murder trial in fact, with
William Edgar Tarrant, a thief well-known to the police for charming money from duplicitous women, standing accused of shooting a policeman. However, before we get to this point the book gives us a window into the lives of some of the other participants in the courtroom, beginning with the foreman of the jury Mr Pinty. There is also a colourfully apparelled female juror, Miss Fenwick-Blunt, along with the court police inspector, a love struck short hand writer, Jake Hartman and the object of his love in the public seating, Maisie Jenks, accompanied by her father. You may wonder why Underwood goes to all this bother, but this is far from being padding. Not only does it provide insightful snapshots of who these people are but especially in the case of Mr Pinty, he is a character who becomes intrinsic to what follows.
Within a matter of pages, privy to Tarrant’s thoughts we know he is innocent of the crime he is accused of and that there was another person there that fateful night, who in fact shot the policeman. Concerned that he will hang for this crime he makes an ominous announcement before the first day of the trial ends. He says when he goes into the witness box tomorrow he will have to make certain disclosures and with these words he effectively signs his own death warrant. As he makes his way to the witness box the next day a bullet to the heart silences him forever. In such a small space you would expect this to be an easy case to solve, especially with some many witnesses. Yet the relevant witnesses seem to have seen nothing. In some cases this may be genuine, as just before Tarrant was shot, Maisie screams before fainting, an action which draws everyone’s attention. Yet in other cases it definitely seems like some are withholding information and are acting incredibly suspiciously, such as Maisie’s ill-timed screaming. Also why did Pinty run out of the juror’s box straight after the shooting? DCI Simon Manton who was present in the court due to being involved in the Tarrant case, is put in charge of the investigation. Pinty’s disappearance makes him the obvious suspect, yet as the story unfolds and more suspicious and dramatic events follow, Manton is right in thinking there is more to this case than meets the eye. Since the narrative moves between the different characters in differing amounts, the reader is sometimes privy to information quicker than Manton, but it takes until Manton’s delivery of the solution to tie all the pieces of the puzzle together.
On the whole Underwood’s novel is well paced and his writing style grabs your attention and flows effectively, often delivering dramatic information in an unceremonious fashion at the end of chapters for maximum effect. I also think Underwood has a knack for giving concise and informative characterisation, as you get to understand the characters very quickly and he often gives this information in indirect ways. For instance we soon get to grips with Mr and Mrs Pinty when Underwood describes in a gently humorous way their married life together in the opening page or two. For example when Mr Pinty is informed he will become a juror he puffs himself up and become rather idealistic – a stance which his wife makes ridiculous when she thinks that ‘a summons from the Archangel Gabriel himself could not have given him more to fuss about.’ Yet we soon get her measure when we find out what newspaper items she is interested in reading about. I also liked how characters are not always what they seem, especially Miss Fenwick-Blunt, a character you would expect to be used comically, being what her landlady calls a ‘typical… garrulous spinster,’ yet in fact has a much less conventional role in the story. It is said that her landlady would ‘have been surprised if she had known just how many secrets Miss Fenwick-Blunt kept to herself and just how untypical she was.’
The only snag for me was the ending. Not the solution which I will come to in a moment, but how the solution is delivered. In the final pages Manton proceeds to have two events where he gathers all the suspects together and then like Poirot goes around saying why so and so might have done it. Firstly this choice of solution delivery didn’t fit on to the end of the story well. It was entertaining to read of course, but it is too golden age a trope to be used in this story. I think a better ending could have been achieved without recourse to artificial gatherings of characters, as the artifice in this case stood out too much. Moreover, two “solution delivering” events seemed excessive and unnecessary, as the first one didn’t really add much to what the reader already knew. It is because of this issue that I had to dock my final rating for the book which is a shame, because the solution is a enjoyable one. Soon after the murder of Tarrant I did suspect the killer, but because of the plethora of avenues of investigation, I kind of forget about them until Manton revealed them at the end – where I unsurprisingly went “I knew it was them!” However, I don’t think Underwood makes the killer obvious, the clues to their guilt are well placed, I think I just got lucky in picking up on one small incidence. It is an enjoyable solution in that the reader doesn’t feel cheated by it. Moreover, the reader can feel happy in working out some parts of the solution for themselves, but not all of it to the extent that they wonder why Manton hasn’t solved it yet. There is definitely a point for reading until the end of the book. So all in all I’d definitely recommend this book and I’ll be looking out for more of his earlier work.
I’m ending my review unusually with a question – Does anyone know of any other mystery novels which feature a murder inside a courtroom? I feel like this is something I have come across before but I can’t recall any titles.