Source: Coach Whip Publications (Review Copy)
John M. O’Connor (1909-1975), is one of those many authors who have been rediscovered by chance, in this case due to clippings and notes inside a copy of a book, being uncovered when coming through a deceased relative’s possessions. Without these Curtis Evans notes in his introduction to this story, it would have been nearly impossible to trace O’Connor’s history. This personal aspect to the introduction made it a really engaging and pleasing read in itself, as finding things in old books is so awfully satisfying. I was interested by Evans’ ideas that stylistically, Anonymous Footsteps (1932), is similar to Joh Dickson Carr’s It Walks by Night (1930) – though having read the book I don’t think O’Connor has the same ability to create a chilling and tense atmosphere as Carr does.
Due to the popularity of And Then There Were None (1939) it is often surprising (though it shouldn’t be really) to find earlier mysteries which have in part a similar premise i.e. a group of people getting murdered on an island, cut off from help because of the elements. It is equally hard to not use Christie’s text as a point of comparison, as in a way it feels like a standard, rightly or wrongly – though I think O’Connor’s novel does highlight some of the writing choices Christie wisely chose.
However to begin with O’Connor sets up his group of island inhabitants very well. We have the ill patriarch named Henry Lanard, who has control of the purse strings and is forever changing his will. We have the wife who is clearly carrying on with her brother in law and we also have a doctor, who used to be married to Henry’s half-sister and who has now brought his second wife in as a nurse to Henry, though has failed to mention this marital connection, hoping to gain money from Henry’s will. By and large we see events from this nurse’s point of view, who is far from satisfied with her choice in husband and who began flirting with Henry’s son as a form of subterfuge, but has found herself developing real feelings. There is also the spinster and embittered sister of Henry who knows an awful lot more about the family than she says. Finally there is the memory of Elizabeth, the half-sister of Henry who died many years ago, but whose actions still have consequences in the present day and in fact may be the catalyst for the current killings. Over a 24 hour period secret after secret unfurls and after a slow start the bodies begin to fall quick and fast and even the character who is the “outsider” is by no means exempt from suspicion and is remarkably reticent in his findings as he explores the case.
One of the key differences between O’Connor’s story and Christie’s, concerns the overall style. With And Then There Were None, there is a more of a distinct thriller feel, events unfold rapidly and characters react to events as opposed to adopting a more formal mode of investigation. O’Connor’s novel, conversely, very much goes in a different direction, situating a very thorough amateur sleuth investigation into a thriller setup, including makeshift autopsies. Consequently there is a much more elaborate puzzle, full to the brim with clues, alibis and theories of how the crimes are committed. Furthermore, the narrative style itself is much more detailed in contrast to Christie’s sparser text. On the whole I enjoyed these elements in the O’Connor novel, though I do feel the pace of the book suffered a little and that the final quarter of the story lost some momentum. Equally I think O’Connor’s narrative choices, as outlined above, did limit the amount of atmosphere and tension he could create, the paranoia and intense mistrust do have their moments, but these are dispersed between periods of cognition and theorising. The identity of the killer is well concealed until the revelation of the solution, although I did have my (correct) suspicions about one person. Again the solution has a thorough feel, though personally for me it could have been shortened a little – but this issue will be down to individual reader preference. Whilst this mystery doesn’t have the iconic trope or twist of And Then There Were None, it is still an entertaining mystery with plenty of enjoyable traits of its own, such as really well developed characters with their complicated and intricate relationships, as well as quite an impressive range of murder methods.