Whilst browsing book buying sites online, (always a dangerous occupation), I came across this 1940s mystery novel by Yolanda Foldes. With such a name I was rather intrigued and tried to find out more about her. Foldes was one of the pennames for Jolán Földes, a Hungarian author who was born in 1901 and died in 1963. Mystery fiction was not her main writing focus and she is best known for her mainstream novel Street of the Fishing Cat (1936). Her other famous novel is Golden Earrings, which was adapted into a film in 1947, starring Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland. She graduated in Budapest in 1921 and then went to work in Paris as a clerk. She didn’t publish her first novel until 1932, though it did win the Mikszáth Prize in Hungary. She emigrated to England in 1941 and it was after this point her works were written in English.
Our setting is a conventional one, with the entire novel pretty much taking place at the country abode of John Marchmont. Yet the plot itself is anything but conventional. Having forced his family members to visit for the weekend, Marchmont delivers a shocking ultimatum to his four nephews – murder me, (as he is dying from cancer), and you will receive £1 million. If none of them do so after the four day period, (as each nephew gets given a specific night to attempt the deed), the money will go to a cats home. The first half of the novel focuses on the night of this ultimatum as the nephews take in the dramatic news they have heard. It also shows the way they talk to each other about it, but also who they confine in. As the night wears on different murder methods are mentioned and there is more than one surprise twist, which the reader is in on and the relations are not. During the night there is also a trio of fire watchers, as our tale is set in WW2. No one will be surprised that John is found dead in the morning, but who did the deed?
With such a premise my expectations were understandably high and I am pleased to say that Foldes more than delivered on her promises. This is an exciting mystery where you are eager to keep reading and her handling of the psychological tension is expertly done. Such a plot type although reminiscent of Richard Hull’s work, is not a comic crime tale – though this is by no means a fault. I was fascinated at seeing how the different characters respond to the situation posed and the effect money has on their personalities and relationships with each other. We even get to see the effect the whole proceedings have on John, who you wonder may be partially regretting his decision. Foldes’ also captures the darker side of human nature well, with Iago and Lady Macbeth type characters rising up among the ranks. Her use of narrative viewpoint is equally accomplished as we initially begin from Genia’s point of view, a character who feels like an outsider in the family, but as the story progresses we move from group to group, person to person, which helps to maintain the pace of the book and reader interest. In a way I think this story would make for a very good film or TV adaptation.
So far I have dwelt on the characterisation of the book, but for all you puzzle fans, who fear this story won’t be for them, I would say that this tale also has a pretty neat and fiendish puzzle for the reader to contend with. Foldes has the ability to make you think she is making things too easy, but all the while she is slipping a number of clever clues passed you. The setting of the novel, WW2, plays in this to an extent and additionally there are times where Foldes uses her setting to consider the future, in particular what society will be like after the war. The role of women weaves it way through the text with some female relations being quite defiant in their desire for a career, whilst with others there is a sense of their ambitions having being thwarted. Power relations between men and women in this story are far from clear cut, which only adds to the interesting mixture of characters.
Unlike with some great reads by obscure authors, this is a well put together mystery and crafted mystery, which you can easily buy online for a reasonable price and you’ll not be surprised that I strongly urge you all to do so, as it really is a brilliant book.