‘The only thing I have against cruise life is that it’s turning us all into busybodies and gossips.’
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Body of Water
For Rich’s Crimes of the Century Challenge this month, with the chosen year of 1959, I have gone for a familiar author and a past read. By and large I have often preferred Blake’s earlier novels, finding the later ones tended to sparkle less or were quite frankly a bit disturbing. Being the 13th out of 16 Strangeways mysteries I was wondering what sort of read this was going to be. Suffice to say it was actually much better than I remembered.
The story commences with Nigel and his partner/ girlfriend, Clare Massinger, booking themselves on to a cruise around the Greek islands. Like many holiday based mysteries there is an assortment of holidaymaker characters, but the two who cause the greatest consternation are the widowed Melissa Blaydon and her sister Ianthe Ambrose, the latter of whom is a classics school teacher who has had a nervous breakdown. Whilst Blaydon attracts men like moths to a lamp (especially cruise manager Nikolaides), Ambrose makes a much less positive impression, going so far as creating enemies. For instance there is Faith, an ex-pupil of Ambrose’s on the same boat and it seems Ambrose played an instrumental role in getting her expelled, an action which led to her suffering from a bout of brain fever. This of course makes Ambrose decidedly unpopular with Faith’s brother. Ambrose is also hugely disliked by one of the boat’s guest speakers, Jeremey Street, who believes her strong censor of his work has adversely affected his sales as a writer who popularises Greek literature. Two other crucial guests on the boat are Ivor Bentinck-Jones, who seems keen to be the life and soul of the party, but who may be up to something more nefarious and Primrose Chalmer, whose is accompanied by her analyst parents. True to stereotype Primrose has been brought up in a more alternative way and is very intelligent for her age and keen to use her knowledge of psychology on the other guests, taking extensive notes in her notebook which she keeps in a sporran.
As the cruise progresses the tension within the group, which Strangeways terms as ‘explosive material’ reaches a crescendo and in the space of a matter of hours there is a dead body and a mysterious disappearance. Strangeways dives straight into an investigation and as the boat nears Athens, a final gathering of the suspects reveals the answer to the mystery.
As I said earlier this was a story where a re-read has actually improved my opinion of it. Firstly I felt the characters were strong for many reasons. Some characters such as the Bishop’s wife are entertaining for their incisive and dry comments, though she does make the trope of characters confiding in an older harmless woman sound a bit like a hairball: ‘I am gossiped to. It all comes of looking so fat and comfy and normal. I’m a Mum figure – everyone coughs it up in my lap.’ I also found the image of her as a ‘vivacious roly-poly,’ quite an amusing one. I also enjoyed Primrose as a character. She may be a bit precocious but there was something also quite endearing about her.
Secondly there are the two sisters, Blaydon and Ambrose, who are at the centre of mystery and Blake does a good job of differentiating them concisely and clearly at the start of the book. On the one hand Blaydon is described as being:
‘of middle height, her graceful carriage minimising a certain stockiness of figure, with high cheekbones and charming hollows beneath them, and a delicate brown complexion that, when she came closer, showed itself as a triumph of cosmetic art, this woman had that air of sexual awareness which tells its own story. She wore a lemon-coloured linen suit and a wide white straw hat.’
Whilst on the other hand Ambrose:
‘though of the same height, seemed dumpy in comparison. She wore a puce-coloured jumper, which emphasised the muddiness of her skin, a rumpled tweed skirt, and serviceable shoes. The general effect of a badly done-up parcel was heightened by untidy hair, a shambling gait, and restless, spasmodic gestures.’
I think it is the ‘badly done-up parcel’ image which struck me the most. The sisters are both hard to pin down as there is a nervous and tense façade in Ambrose, yet underneath there is a secret attentiveness and intelligence. Equally Blaydon has the manner of being ‘no more than a spoiled, silly, selfish woman of the world,’ yet conversely there is a kinder side to her towards her sister, taking her on a holiday which is of little interest to her. Finally with the characters their relationships are not all straight forward such as Faith’s interest in Street. A reader can quickly assume it is nothing more than a schoolgirl crush but it actually turns out to be something much more complex.
Blake captures the cruise milieu well and like my post’s header quote, the boat is full of people who are curious about others to a great degree, although this is exhibited in different ways and for different purposes. This curiosity is given a more sinister edge when the narrator writes that
‘Nigel’s passionate curiosity about human beings was accompanied by a deep distrust of persons who, outside their professional capacities, manifested the same curiosity. Experience had taught him that such curiosity is seldom disinterested.’
In this second read something which struck me much more forcibly this time round was the level of cluing in the mystery, even including a list of questions and scraps of information that Strangeways tabulates half way through the investigation. In addition I think this novel produces an enjoyable variation on a twist or plot device that Christie used a few times in her own work. I think my main qualm with the book was how the solution is finally delivered, as it felt a bit overdrawn and I think considering the clues available it seems less satisfying to catch the guilty by tricking them into betraying themselves. Furthermore after the solution is finished the book itself takes a while to wrap up and I think this makes the book finish with a much slower pace.
A Question of Proof (1935)
The Morning After Death (1966)