Today’s read is in preparation for JJ and Ben’s forthcoming discussion on this book, later this month. The only Carr novel I managed to read last year was Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956), which was not that great of a read, so I was hoping I would fare better with this one.
The plot commences with a love triangle of sorts. Hugh Rowland, a solicitor, is madly in love with Brenda White, but she is already engaged to another man, Frank Dorrance. Hugh is not so convinced Brenda loves her fiancé and is more committed to the relationship due to social and financial pressures. In particular Frank’s uncle left a will which only leaves his substantial wealth to his nephew and Brenda if they get married and will only stay with them as long as they remain so. Though before anyone begins feeling sorry for Frank, who sees Brenda and Hugh kissing, the narrative soon reveals the spoilt and unpleasant man Frank is and it is therefore no surprise to the reader that after an afternoon of tennis, followed by a storm, Frank is found dead on the tennis court – strangled. Brenda puts herself in jeopardy when she finds his body and walks across the sandy court, as you see there are only two sets of footprints, hers and Frank’s. She swears to Hugh she didn’t do the deed, but who did? And more perplexingly how? As the tennis court and its surroundings are designed in such a way to make it seem impossible anyone could have murdered Frank, other than Brenda. Of course Brenda and Hugh’s lies, as well as the actions of another unknown party muddy the investigative waters for Superintendent Hadley and Gideon Fell.
With Carr there is often an expectation of his mysteries having very intricate murder methods and there is also often an expectation of his stories having a decidedly gothic hue and atmosphere: It Walks By Night (1930) and The Burning Court (1937) are but two examples of this expectation being vindicated. However, what struck me about this book was not that it didn’t have an intricate murder method, indeed this is a technically very fiendish murder to pull off indeed, but that the story itself seemed to focus much more narrative space on its suspects and their relationships with one another, as well as the lies they are prepared to give. The beginning of the story has oppressively hot weather and this becomes a form of pathetic fallacy, as a symbol for the increasingly and unbearably tense emotions going on underneath respectable surfaces. Yet for all that, this intensity of personality, (which I think is embodied into the themed chapter headings), I wouldn’t say it came across as particularly gothic. Having said all this, these are not criticisms of the story, but just something I noticed. In some ways this is perhaps not your typical Carr and interestingly Gideon Fell, who does appear in this story, takes much more of a behind the scenes sort of role. On the one hand this prevented any over theorising, as in some books he can go on a bit, but on the other hand I think I felt more in the dark regarding how the murder was achieved until Fell reveals all at the end. The culprit I did manage to identify but that was more due to reader instinct than specific proofs.
So to the characters who stole the limelight for themselves. I think Brenda and Hugh make for unusual protagonists and in the latter case arguably quite a morally ambiguous one, as Hugh does admit later on in the book that he and his father fabricated evidence to get a guilty client free of their murder charge. Initially when you first meet Brenda around Frank, it is easy to see them as a variation of a descendent of another fictional ill-matched couple, Daisy and Tom Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), with their relationship being held together by money and social standing. But then we get to see another side to her, (Frank really is a sinister take on the bright young thing). Brenda is a complex heroine, an orphan, who is worldly and not naïve, but equally not all that experienced. After the murder, other characters, such as Kitty, begin to disparage her and present her as an oddity, saying she ‘doesn’t seem to like the things most normal girls like […] positively hates small-talk and all things social […] and she reads too much, she reads and reads and reads; it’s not natural.’ This desire for reading is not hugely apparent elsewhere in the text, but I guess the murder was probably taking up more of Brenda’s time and attention, (after all what book would you want to read whilst being a part of a murder investigation?) As I mentioned earlier, Dr Fell, has a more minor presence in the novel, but I think he still has some entertaining moments. A personal favourite is when he assesses his skills and talents as a sleuth, demarcating those areas which he is not so good at: ‘If I were to attempt shadowing anybody, the shadowee would find himself about as inconspicuous as though he were to walk down Piccadilly pursued by the Albert Memorial.’ Furthermore, there were also other moments of unexpected comedy in this book, which I equally enjoyed a lot, such as when Hugh’s father sends his assistants to experimentally find out whether or not it is possible to walk across a tennis court net when it is tied up.
So on the whole I think I rather enjoyed this one. Tension and drama, even without the gothic hues, were well maintained, as I particularly liked the countdown to Frank’s death, which appeared in parenthesis within the text. The pace was good on the whole and Carr presents the reader with some interesting characters to grapple with. The culprit is perhaps an easy one to intuit, but the murder method is definitely a puzzling one. Good read to start the year with and I am looking forward to hearing JJ and Ben’s thoughts on it.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Strangulation