Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Magnifying Glass
I initially thought this was my first encounter with this author, but a little googling later and I realised I had actually come across him before, writing as Roger Bax. As well as these two pennames he had a third, Paul Somers, which is the closest to his real name Paul Winterton. As well as being a crime novelist he was also a journalist and was one of the founding members of the Crime Writer’s Association.
No Tears for Hilda (1950) opens well with the police arriving at George Lambert’s home. Initially they are very sympathetic with George, with first impressions looking as though his wife, Hilda, has committed suicide. Yet this sympathy soon morphs into suspicion when a bruise is found on the back of Hilda’s neck. The circumstantial evidence soon becomes pretty damning against George: misfortunately placed fingerprints, a poor alibi and it is also quickly discovered that he was having an affair with one of the nurses looking after his daughter, Jane, who has been admitted to a mental hospital after a breakdown. Even worse, if things could be much worse, it seems impossible to find any other suspect. Hilda led a very quiet and colourless life, according to George. Although Inspector Haines is not entirely satisfied he has little choice but to arrest George. It is in to this set of circumstances that George’s friend, Max Easterbrook, arrives on leave from Germany, where he works for the International Refugee Organisation.
Max is convinced that somewhere in Hilda’s past, either recent or long ago, there is a reason why someone would have wanted to murder her. The blameless image of Hilda begins to falter when Max visits Jane and hears from the doctor the reasons for her breakdown and current problems. As Max digs further and further into Hilda’s life, interviewing Hilda’s relations and scant acquaintances it quickly becomes apparent that George’s viewpoint of Hilda is fallible to say the least and quite frankly untenable. The reader soon begins to wonder why Hilda didn’t get bumped off sooner. Yet despite all of Max’s hard work, there is little if anything to suggest the killer wasn’t George and in fact Max’s work only seems to give George even more of a motive for killing his wife. A chink of light finally appears in this impenetrable case, but before it is over Max will find that detective work and the deliverance of justice is a far messier and complicated business than it may seem.
This was definitely an entertaining mystery, even if the mystery element itself was not the most complicated. Yet despite the simplicity of the case (which is more influenced by the plot type than anything else), Garve wrote it very well and his characterisation skills are definitely worth the read. The key to solving the murder of Hilda is understanding who she really was, as we quickly get to see that George is not particularly reliable in this area and I think Garve executes this aspect of the book effectively and enjoyably for the reader. I really felt like I got to know Hilda and in fact the victim’s character is probably the most focused on. Yet I also think the other characters are well-drawn and convincingly depicted, especially psychologically. Hilda I think although appearing colourless at the beginning of the book, is actually one of crime fiction’s most sinister victims. Normally in crime fiction, particularly golden age detective fiction, the victim is rich and openly obnoxious, dictator-like or generally insufferable. But what makes Hilda more chilling is the subterfuge she creates around her awful behaviour, hurting her own victims all the more because they feel powerless to react and speak out. The ending of the book is also very fitting, predictable in some respects, but also surprising in others. Finally Max made a good amateur sleuthing figure as he has a degree of naivety and fallibility which makes him more interesting as a character. He is not the perfect hero. So if you haven’t tried Garve’s work yet then I’d definitely recommend you do. If anyone has read any of his other books I would be interested in hearing which ones are the good ones and which ones should be avoided, as he is an author I would like to try more of.