It’s that time of the week again where the Tuesday Night Bloggers come together to focus on a monthly theme, with this month’s theme being Foreign Mysteries, which I’m taking as an excuse to read about mysteries in much hotter countries (in the vain hope I can forget how cold it is outside). Bev at My Readers’ Block is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog later today to read other bloggers’ contributions. If you have missed any of the last two weeks posts here are links below:
This weeks’ read takes place in Fiji’s capital, Suva and its original title gives some indication of who the victim of the book will be: Who Killed Netta Maul? Frank Arthur (1902-1984), who wrote the book was an accountant in Fiji in the 1930s and this comes through in the book itself, though not always in positive ways. I also wonder if he was a poet at all as in the book a Frank Arthur is listed as one of the four poets of Fiji.
The story begins showing a very human side to Inspector Spearpoint of the Fiji Constabulary who is waiting to pick up his daughter from her friends’ house late Thursday evening. Due to hugely disliking his daughter’s friend’s mother, Mrs Montgomery Thompson, he doesn’t leave his car and instead does a mind training exercise, going over the people and cars he passed on the way. Just as his daughter finally arrives he hears a loud scream and a while later he sees Mr Montgomery Thompson’s car being recklessly driven. Not hearing or seeing anything further he does nothing about it, though it comes back to haunt him early next morning when he gets a call saying a body has been found in the river. A quick examination reveals that it is Netta Maul, who is well-known on the island and supplements her Tobacconist business with gifts from her numerous string of admirers. She is also someone Spearpoint passed in his car last night and his mind immediately goes back to those people and cars who were in the vicinity, thus giving himself four immediate suspects to follow up, two of which are old flames, one of whom whose car seems to have been used to transport her body to the river and the other who has had difficult business dealings with her. Alibis are intricately gone into and suspects are thoroughly questioned for those tell-tale lies, but it remains to be seen whether all this work will pay off.
Something which definitely struck me when reading this book were the parallels between it and the world of Freeman Wills Croft’s Inspector French mysteries. For instance there is a sense of exactitude in the way that each chapter is given a specific time frame, even if it is only an hour. Moreover, like Inspector French, Inspector Spearpoint does not have maverick flashes of brilliance which come out of nowhere, but stolidly and slowly builds up facts and evidence, before rushing to any theories. Moreover, alibis and the proving and faking of is an important component in the case, which I think would be very familiar to Inspector French.
I mentioned earlier that Arthur’s depiction of Fiji comes across as based on his own experiences, but that this didn’t always entail in such depictions being positive. I think this is because Arthur gives a very white person’s point of view and the story doesn’t include much interaction with non-white characters, who are invariably servants (and the language that is used by the narrative voice towards them is invariably objectifying) or lower ranking policemen who don’t contribute much to the case. You don’t get much of a sense of what it is like to be a native in this place. The focus is on the white characters living in the colony and like in Roger East’s Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935), there is a pro white bias, though I think it comes less overtly through the characters than in East’s novel. A strong example of it is when Spearpoint and his superiors discuss the suspect they wish to arrest near the end of the book and there is a huge disinclination in getting ‘a white man hung’ and they instead hope he will get acquitted and leave the island.
Furthermore when it comes to race the characters themselves sometimes use politically incorrect language such as calling Chinese people ‘chows,’ though interestingly Arthur himself doesn’t use the word in the role of the narrator. There are also a couple of incidences of characters referring to a ‘chocolate man.’ However I think it is in the character of Netta Maul that race becomes a bigger issue, though her gender and her popularity with men also significantly influence people’s opinions of her. From the beginning the narrator is keen to emphasise that she is a ‘half-caste.’ Her physical features are also gone into at great length, setting up how she is viewed in the book:
‘Netta Maul had once been the prettiest half-caste in Fiji, indeed, the prettiest girl in Fiji. There is always a prettiest half-caste in Fiji, who has her brief notorious reign and is then forgotten in married respectability. But Netta Maul had not married, and had not fallen into oblivion. She was still good looking at twenty-six; the long tresses of which she was so vain were as black, her sun-burnt complexion as smooth as ever; but she was undeniably fat. The dainty slenderness of the Netta Maul of legend was a memory of the dim and sticky past. But such as the force of her personality that she remained an institution and a tradition…’
Characters such as sub inspector Sharpe are pleased when she is killed and his handling of her expresses the vehemence of the dislike he has for her, though Arthur never really fully explores this in the book. Inspector Spearpoint is probably the most enlightened of the lot in this story and is actually quite moved when he finds her dead body and at this moment her status seems to be heightened when her death is referred to as Spearpoint’s ‘first European murder case.’ However this is but a brief moment for Netta as shortly afterwards she goes back to being ‘the half-caste corpse’ and later on the police doctor goes on to use her in a hospital lecture on anatomy, which again devalues her. Interestingly she is not all she is rumoured to be and for the reader at least we can speculate how much the gossip about her is true.
I think the main issue I had with this book is how the focus on the alibis, clues and the case hinder the characterisation. Although there is a touching moment of humanity at the start of the book, we don’t get to see much of a personal side to Spearpoint after this point. Moreover, I didn’t feel the characters were ever drawn in depth. Netta probably is the most looked at, but only as a victim and these moments are rather fragmented and written by a man with a white bias, limiting the nuance he can give to characters such as her. The ending also irritated me a bit. On the plus side I think Arthur writes a police investigation much more interestingly than Freeman Wills Croft does, though the unusual setting may have helped with this.
Here are a few clues as to the location of next Tuesday’s novel:
- In this country more than 60 languages are spoken, with more than 40 ethnic groups.
- This country gained its independence from Britain in 1963, which it celebrates on the 12th of December each year.
- It is one of the three countries which shares Lake Victoria.
- The first African woman to win the Noble Peace prize came from this country.
P. S. If you are looking for a new way to say you had too much to drink last night then take a leaf out of one of the Australian characters’ book and say ‘I was as shot as Chloe.’ Don’t quite understand how it came about, but it will certainly leave people wondering.