Like R. C. Ashby, Bruce Hamilton is another author I have only come across for the first time this year and despite being written in the 1950s, this novel would not have been out of place a couple of decades earlier. The mystery takes place on a boat which is sailing to various parts of the West Indies. Although told in the third person, this story is predominately seen from the viewpoint of Edgar Cantrell, a music conductor who is having a recuperative holiday after an operation. Amongst the other passengers there are a number of familiar types including the ship siren, Yvonne Easthope and colossal ship bore, Mr Rottentosser (yes you did read that surname correctly). A few days into the trip a passenger goes overboard and this is followed up by a series of drownings. A long way into the novel when events suggest that these happenings are not accidents but murders, some detective work finally begins to take place and of course Edgar takes on the amateur sleuthing role, working in earnest when events hit close to home.
As I think the end of my last paragraph implies this was not the world’s greatest read. The opening chapter starts well, almost in the mould of classic crimes writers such as Christie, in that it provides a panorama of the other boat passengers. There is also a delightful comic turn of phrase in these early pages, such as here:
‘For his ease, he had packed six virgin Trollopes, one of them, Can You Forgive Her?, containing no fewer than 1034 liberal pages. With this lately discovered resource, which had made the post-operational stage in hospital almost blissful, and the succeeding three weeks (with Eileen doing most of his packing and all of his running around before collapsing to the seasonal flu three days ago) a delicious relaxed hovering between Victorian ideal domesticity and the neo-Elizabethan actuality […]’
Yet unfortunately things go downhill from there. The pacing is quite atrocious at times and there is an unnecessarily long build up to the first crime and then somewhat of a reluctance on the narrative’s part to do any sort of investigating. Clues are somewhat thin on the ground and the final solution is somewhat tenuously reached. There is a pleasing surprise at the end but this doesn’t really mitigate the rest. The characterisation perhaps is more influential in this respect, shoring up a less than satisfying plot, as ship hostilities and rivalries are well created. As I mentioned above, this novel in terms of its structure and style is from an earlier writing period and it would not have been hugely out of place if it had been published in the 1930s. The only aspect which would have seemed anachronistic is the book’s handling of isms, in particular those concerning race and sexuality. I’m not saying this book is vastly forward thinking, though in some places it is, but I do think it has a much more confrontational and upfront nature to the discussion and inclusion of these issues, that was perhaps less prevalent in earlier mysteries.
It’s not much of a recommendation, but I have read a lot worse and there were some enjoyable scenes. However, given the wide range of vintage mystery authors available to readers I wouldn’t rush out to get a copy of this one any time soon.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Boat