I didn’t have the strongest of starts with this author, with a poorly paced read in Murder for Christmas (1949), putting me off trying another. However, positive reviews from bloggers such as Tom Cat on other titles by this author made me decide to give Duncan another go.
Things begin well with a dramatic opening line: ‘Lydia Dare was dining with a murderer,’ though it is after dinner, when she is walking home, that she is stabbed to death. All of this takes place one night in the village of Dalmering and almost right on cue the following morning, amateur sleuth, Mordecai Tremaine gets off the train to visit his friends Paul and Jean Russell, who as you’ve probably already guessed, live in Dalmering. They are keen for Tremaine to investigate and solve the killer of their friend and thankfully for Tremaine his friend at Scotland Yard, Inspector Boyne, is in charge of the case. The investigation hones in on a particular group of people for its suspects: the cast of a local amateur theatre production, who just so happen to be rehearsing, Murder Has a Motive. There is a strong undercurrent of tension, with many of the cast having dark secrets to hide and of course alibis which initially seem secure become more vulnerable. What heightens the sinister atmosphere further is the parallels between real life and the play being rehearsed. The pressure to solve the case invariably increases, as the body count mounts.
To begin on a positive note I would say my reading experience this time round was improved. The characters worked better for me, (though I’m still not a huge fan of Tremaine), and the pace didn’t drag this time. The initial setup is also very strong, with that excellent first line and Duncan does a good job of maintaining reader interest with additional surprises.
However, unfortunately for me I did identify the killer within the first two chapters of the book. Given the Midsummer Murders feel to the story and the odd phrase or two, I had a light bulb moment and I could see where the final solution was heading. I guess this is the issue of having read so much mystery fiction. So although I could see this was a more complex mystery than the last Duncan novel I read, its complexity was somewhat unnecessary for me, having already spotted whodunit. But if that light bulb moment doesn’t happen for you then at least there is plenty of evidence for you to consider, though I think Tremaine could be a bit quicker off the mark in his own investigative work. Tremaine is not an objectionable sleuth in anyway but for some reason I don’t really warm to him. His inclination towards romance and sentimental fiction probably doesn’t help, as he does go a bit gooey minded when he sees young love. His perception of the “evil atmosphere” pervading the case also irked a little, as it just felt a bit silly. Yet in fairness this is a fairly minor issue with the story.
I got on better with Duncan’s writing style this time round as well, though readers be warned, Duncan does indulge in very long descriptive sentences from time to time, which are not the easiest things in the world to read. The ending is entertaining, though some of the dramatic dialogue was a bit hackneyed:
‘There was a malign influence, but it was a human one. There was evil in Dalmering. But it was the evil in your heart!’
‘Damn you, Damn you, Damn you, Damn you! You knew it all the time!’
So whilst this was a better Duncan read, I’m still not entirely convinced this is the author for me. I enjoyed the writing style, setting and characters more, but the fact I solved the case very early on, probably undermined my enjoyment of the reading experience.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Train
For a slightly different take on this one, take a look at Tom Cat’s review here.