Ames is an author I have reviewed a lot this year, but sadly, (or it may come as a relief to you), this is the last Delano Ames novel I have in my TBR pile. This is the 8th book in the Jane and Dagobert series and was published under the title of A Coffin for Christopher in America, (guessing the pub related pun may not have translated so well). The next book in the series though alas is beyond my reach, as not only are available online copies rather pricy to say the least, they are very far and few between to boot.
The opening sentence announces the death of Christopher Piper, who is such an unlikeable fellow that when it seems like he has taken his own life with sleeping tablets, everyone feels it is his ‘first public-spirited action.’ However in the next sentence we are next told that a week after his funeral the police dig him up again. The majority of the story takes place within this week. This death comes to Jane’s attention as Piper was married to her old school friend, Elizabeth Stanley. Her marriage was not a happy one as soon after they got married during the war, Piper scarpered abroad to avoid enlistment. He briefly returned after the war, only to flee again from the country due to Elizabeth’s father finding out about Piper’s second family. It was only a year previous to the story beginning that Piper came back for good and weirdly enough Elizabeth takes him in. After all he is the father of her twins (Ann and Anna). Those of a more sceptical mind take note that he only returned once Elizabeth’s father had died and had left her a lot of money. The money of course does not last long.
Alongside finding out this information about Piper we see Jane and Dagobert moving into a new flat, which used to be tenanted by Charlie Crabb, a private detective, until he mysteriously disappeared; his disappearance coinciding with Piper’s death. As the pages unfold more and more links are made between Crabb and Piper, as well as with many other characters including a night club hostess and a newly released criminal amongst others. The suspect list is also varied including the weeping widow, who is certainly keeping something back. The twins are also a conundrum, being witnesses who are tell a mixture of lies, truths and inventions.
As you expect in an Ames novel there is a note of surrealism and he probably wins the prize for weirdest night club in fiction. The twins and Sigismund, (Dgaobert’s cousin and Piper’s neighbour), also provide a comedic thread in the story and of course we can’t forget Jane’s wisecracks. However in the main this novel is far less comic than other stories in the series; you could almost say it is a sombre tale. Yet I would not say this is a bad thing, as in fact I think this being a less humorous novel and one which is set in London, rather than some exotic locale, has meant that there is little distraction from the central mystery, which is certainly more complex and developed than some of Ames’ previous ones. There are lots of threads to follow up and investigate how they all link together and Ames shows a skill in effectively delaying information, (but not in the sense of withholding clues).
I would also say that due to less comedy in the book, the characterisation is more in depth. Ames quickly has you loathing Piper, whilst almost wondering what sort of nit wit Elizabeth is for taking him back. Through the twins we additionally get an interesting take on the broken family unit, as their perceptions of what has gone on are intriguing to say the least. I would only say there is one bit in the narrative which is a bit awkward, (for the want of a better word). Dagobert, well known maverick character seems to think it is perfectly appropriate to push a girl’s head repeatedly under water to get an answer to a question. It’s not really the point that she has fallen in the river accidently beforehand. Yet weirdly this behaviour has a positive effect on the twins who are described as becoming ‘Dagobert’s slaves.’ Ames leaves the matter on the following note: ‘like their mother they responded to masculine ill-treatment.’ Aside from the moral/gender attitude issues, I didn’t really feel this behaviour fitted in with Dagobert’s character, whose approach to children in previous stories has not been depicted this way.
Tying in with the more pronounced and intricate mystery in this book, I would say the solution to this case is one of Ames’ best, as normally his solutions are never really out of the ordinary. But this one is rather clever in my opinion and I was certainly foxed. Though in keeping with Ames’ reputation as a humorous writer the ending has a nice comedic touch.
In fairness to you the reader though I should point out that there is one discrepancy in the narrative. I would like to say that I spotted it all by myself, but some kind previous reader did instead, making a nice note of it on the page, in pen, (so thoughtful of them). However if that note had not been there I don’t think I would have noticed the discrepancy and equally it isn’t all that intrinsic to the plot.
Overall I think this book was a return to the high standard Ames gives in his first few novels and the mystery element is particularly well done. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of this book then I certainly recommend you buy it.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Clock or Time Piece