This was quite an unexpected story in a number of ways for me. Firstly we have the author ‘banish[ing]’ his introduction to the end of book, describing it as more like a ‘post-mortem’ or ‘postscript’ than as a ‘foreword.’ Then we have the story itself. If you flick through the first few pages you will, like me, more naturally assume this is going to be an academic set mystery, as we have four friends (some dons, others guests), whiling away an evening in a senior common room, at an Oxford college, with a game of bridge. One of the guests is Dr Ernest Brendel, a lawyer and criminologist, who solved a murder, the last time he came to visit the college. Is another going to take place? Well no actually. Instead the first chapter has the other three bridge players, a Lieutenant General and two dons named Prendergast and Gresham, asking Brendel to critique their bridge playing, believing that he used his investigative skills to help him win all the rubbers. A critique does ensue, but the main point to come out of it is the potential link between crime solving and bridge playing and in fact Brendel actually says he has used the Blackwood convention (a bridge move), to identify culprits. Of course his friends want an example, from a case he has used it in and that is what the remainder of the story proceeds to do, with Brendel and his friends interrupting the narrative from time to time to discuss the action, as it were and make their guesses as to who the guilty party will be.
Reading that last paragraph back, this story may seem rather dull and tame and perhaps only of interest to rabid bridge fans. However, such assumptions are completely unfounded as Masterman presents us with one heck of a tantalising and intriguing case. Brendel relates the story of the case of the four friends, though friends in this question is rather a loose term, as within the quartet of characters, each person is both a potential victim and a potential murderer. As Brendel’s story unfolds we see how events have conspired against these four individuals, past indiscretions becoming fodder for blackmail, a blackmailer fearing discovery, a young man about town also fearing that his embezzlement of company funds will be found out and of course that old favourite romantic jealousy and rivalry. With all of these motives and tensions in place the four head off for their annual New Year holiday and through various circumstances Brendel uncovers enough going on to fear that the end of the Hotel Magnifico’s fancy dress ball will culminate in death. Whilst in retrospect he has much more knowledge at his finger tips to give the reader, at that particular time and moment, Brendel only has enough to do minimal ‘pre-crime construction’ and ‘pre-detection,’ i.e. begin detecting before the crime has been committed. But will he be able to stop the murder that he fears will take place? In fact does he even know for certain who is going to be the victim, as well as who is going to be the killer?
I hope I have done this story justice, as the plot and its story within a story structure is so wonderfully executed and I found it intriguing to have the crime or the prevention of, as the story’s finale, turning upside down what we usually expect from a detective story. Christie did play around with this idea in one of her own novels, but I think Masterman’s take on it, is by the far more ironic and darkly comical. The ending is delightfully unexpected and entertaining and perhaps could be described as being in the Francis Iles vein. Masterman takes suspense to a whole new level by leaving you in the dark as to who even the victim will be or whether there will even be more than one. Masterman also reveals his strengths as a writer, in the way he goes about delivering the story within a story, (which reminded me of Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (1932)), as although his book has a very good concept at its centre, it could have gone badly wrong if mishandled. In his introduction he wonders how a reader could find his tale interesting, given that they are hearing a case second hand, but as for this particular reader, I certainly did find it so. He avoids repetition of material and Brendel has a good narrator’s style.
Still not sure I’ve done this story justice, but just trust me that it is a very good one. Whether it is all about the solving of the puzzle of whether it is all about the characters, I think readers with either preference won’t be disappointed. Furthermore, I think this is definitely a text which pushes the genre boundaries to their very edges, but without compromising on the story entertainment.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Number in the Title
A brief foray on the internet has shown that two fellow bloggers have also reviewed this book, Moira at Clothes in Books and Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time. Bizarrely, (from my point of view), they don’t seem to have enjoyed it as much as I did. Is there something wrong with me? Were we reading the same book? Perhaps this is the final surprise of the book.