I snapped up this particular find for 99p in a local charity shop, so I was quite pleased with myself, especially when I realised that the authors were the same ones who wrote the Mr and Mrs North series. This particular series has Lt. Heimrich as its’ serial sleuth, who actually appeared in some of the North novels before getting his own separate series. A Client is Cancelled (1951) is the fourth book in this 22 book series and it seems to have garnered some good contemporary reviews. Frances Iles for the Sunday Times said that the author ‘treat a conventional plot so lightly as to make it seem quite fresh.’ Whilst the Daily Mail wrote that it was ‘a first class mystery, hallmarked with the Lockridge stamp of wit and wisdom’ and the Glasgow Evening Times said that the Lockridges had ‘not produced a better thriller… a fast moving yarn, amusing in dialect and refreshing in the absence of slang.’ They go on to say that this book ‘makes exciting reading…’ With such commendations my expectations were certainly raised.
The story is set in a scorching late American summer, which certainly seems to have a great effect on the clothing choices of our central protagonists, Pooh and Oh-Oh. Yes you read that correctly, these are the nicknames for a married couple called Winifred and Orson Otis and it is the latter who narrates the story, which begins with a get together at the more glamorous home of Faye and George Townsend. Also there are Pooh’s uncle Paul, her cousin Pauline, Dwight Craig, an employee of George’s advertising agency, neighbour Francis Eldredge and Ann Dean, Faye’s decorator consultant who also just happens to be Craig’s ex-wife. To Oh-oh (yes I am using the really annoying and sickly sweet nickname) the party is mostly boring and seen through a drunken haze (I’m impressed by how much alcohol these people can consume), but underneath polite banalities are a number of tensions. These tensions seem to abrupt when Pooh and Oh-oh decide to use the Townsend’s pool late at night (and no they don’t feel awkward about not having brought their swim suits) and end up finding Paul at the bottom of the pool, shot in the back. Pooh and Oh-oh definitely top the suspect list quickly, as not only do they receive $50,000 from Paul’s will, but Oh-oh’s gun has conveniently gone missing and his shirt is found with blood stains on. Their predicament becomes even more fraught when they come across another body, which has recently been shot the next day. However, to be fair there are a number of motives for murder flying around, from revenge and illicit love to the desire to gain money and the fear of losing it. Thankfully Captain Heimrich is on the case…
So I think one thing I have learnt is to not trust newspaper reviews. This is not an awful novel or a really bad read, but it is hardly ‘fresh,’ or a ‘first class mystery’ and it is certainly not a thriller. Equally yes the nicknames Pooh and Oh-Oh (Oh-Oh especially) are a bit too cloying, which could equally be said of Pooh’s character, coming across as quite ditzy – especially when she says Oh-Oh. Then again it is hard to say Oh-Oh with an appearance of great intelligence. Pooh and Oh-oh are not protagonists you can warm to or identify with, due to the sickly sweet atmosphere which pervades them though their more unconventional lifestyle and their drinking habits reminded me a little of Craig Rice’s Jake Justus and Helene Brand. The narrative style has some highpoints taking on a humorous tone when discussing Pooh and Oh-Oh’s difficult car, named It:
‘Pooh and I try within reason, to be polite, particularly to inanimate objects. So… we were polite to It. It is rude to assume, in advance of proof, malicious recalcitrance in anything, so It was given the benefit of whatever doubt existed.’
But in the main the style although flowing well is not anything out of the ordinary. Captain Heimrich, again is quite an average sleuth – not irritating but not very dynamic either, in fact you could say he is so relaxed he’s almost horizontal. Though he did remind me of TV sleuth Columbo, especially in his style of speech, his unflappability and his unprepossessing demeanour:
‘I suppose because Captain Heimrich was not all a dramatic man – not, at any rate, in any obvious sense. He was merely a pervasive man. He merely sat there, looked around, and seemed to expect one of us to open a conversation. When nobody did, he closed his eyes, briefly, opened them again and said that this was a lot of trouble for everyone, naturally.’
The characterisation comes to life at the end of the book when the killer is revealed, but not much is made of it, which is only natural I guess, considering how little we get under the skin of the characters. Perhaps there was a hidden criticism in Iles’ review after all, as light is definitely the word for this book.
But I think the main reason why this remains an average read is that there is a lack of direction once the police investigation goes underway and there is a lack of dramatic events after the second body is found. The Otis’ vaguely do some amateur sleuthing but not much and although suspicious details are found about everyone, there is nothing to suggest one person is more guilty than the other. It is not surprising that Captain Heimrich has to use a psychological trick to get the killer to confess, during a meeting where all the suspects are gathered and Heimrich recycles all the information we already know about everyone. So on balance this is a light and easy read but nothing remarkable or dazzling. It is not a book I would recommend to readers new to the Lockridges. There is a lack of tension, though the pace is good and for the seasoned crime fiction reader the narrative arc becomes a bit predictable. So this book review could be shortened down to one word really – ‘meh.’