Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)
Postgate’s reputation as a writer strongly rests on another novel of his, The Verdict of Twelve (1940), a trial based mystery which I really enjoyed when I read it a few years ago. It was therefore pleasing when the British Library reprinted this book earlier this year, but it was even more exciting that they were going to reprint today’s read, Somebody at the Door (1943), which I had not read before.
This is Postgate’s second mystery novel, set in WW2, and after a train ride home the not particularly pleasant local councillor, Henry Grayling, dies a rather unpleasant death. The wages he was carrying have also gone missing. Suspicion quickly falls on the passengers who shared the same train compartment as him, many of whom knew the victim and had good reasons for wishing him dead, ranging from a German refugee and his wife’s lover to a fellow member of the local Home Guard platoon.
The book is prefaced by an extract from Jules Romain’s work on Men of Good Wills, including the following quote discussing how the reader ‘will guess that very often the thread of the story will seem to break, and the interest be suspended or scattered – that at the moment when he begins to be familiar with a character, to enter into his cares and his little world, and to watch the future through the same window as he does, he will be suddenly requested to transport himself far away from there, and take up quite different disputes.’ This approach to writing can be seen in Postgate’s novel, (hence its inclusion I suppose), as like in his first novel, he focuses a lot on shifting from suspect to suspect going into detail with their pasts and backgrounds. In particular at the beginning of such chapters, (as these chapter tend to be separated out between chapters focused on the present day investigation), an infographic is included which shows where each suspect was sitting in the train and each time a hand points to a different suspect. However I think Postgate goes even further in this novel than his last on prioritising this aspect of the story. I would go as far as saying that the intensity and depth of these back stories, (with one backstory becoming a mystery within a mystery), almost detract from and take over the initial mystery, which is solved in a somewhat perfunctory way in the final chapter. The imbalance makes this story more of a character study than a mystery, though as a character study I would say it is first rate, with its darker and un-tinted depiction of wartime Britain, which does creep increasingly into the final solution of the book. Yet, Postgate does choose a very unusual murder method and I think it only a shame that he did not prioritise the mystery of the book a little more, over perhaps the individual mysteries, sorrows and losses of the suspects.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Train