I first heard of this author on Martin Edwards’ blog and was pleased that it wasn’t so hard to obtain a copy of his work, despite his less well-known status. It has helped that he had a recent(ish) reprinting by Ostara.
The story takes place over the May Week, which at Cambridge means a string of college balls, a tempting setting for any fan of interwar crime. Murder strikes very early in this book, after the first ball of the week, when Sir Vyvyan Rowsell-Hoggs is found stabbed down a dark Cambridge lane and his wife’s expensive pendent is stolen from their hotel. The finger soon points towards Wilfred Lanham, who has inconveniently disappeared, as he is well-known for his grudge towards Hoggs and the other remaining members of the Nine Bright Shiners – a university dinner club which before WW1 started a trust fund for their future children. Twenty years on of course things have changed for quite a few of these members, many died, whilst others have lost their former wealth, especially Lanham’s. Further murders seem to blacken Lanham’s name even further, yet for all that Major Maurice Hemyock is not entirely convinced of his guilt. The Major of course is an amateur sleuth and criminologist who also happens to be a good friend of Colonel Nugent, who has recently been made Chief Constable for the area – such good friends in fact that he was already planning to join his wife at their house. As you’d expect there are other fishy characters to be investigated, including two mother and son pairings, as well as a mysterious tough looking American who is on the hunt for someone. Things ultimately arrive at a showdown on a thundersome afternoon.
I would say this was quite a mixed read. It started off in a bewildering fashion, so it took me a couple of chapters to get into the book and understand what was going on and who everyone was. In particular it took me a few pages to figure out the narrator, as things such as their gender and relationship to Maurice, the amateur sleuth, are not explicitly stated at the start of the book. It turns out the narrator is Myra, wife and sidekick of Maurice, which took me by surprise, not because I am not used to female Watson narrators, but just the way it took a while for this to become apparent. However, once this fact had finally sunk in I got to quite enjoy Myra’s narration, as she has many an entertaining feminine aside. I also feel that she can be considered a fictional predecessor to Joan Coggin’s Lady Lupin and Delano Ames’ Jane Dagobert and in a way she is a fusion of these two characters, though less overtly comedic. She is involved in mild social misunderstandings and does have a more tart side to her remarks at times.
Once you’ve figured out who’s who in this book, the characters definitely grow on you and I’d definitely enjoy experiencing Myra in other mysteries in particular. Colonel Nugent, does tend to be a bit more conservative and at the start of the book is frightfully keen for the killer to come from the criminal classes rather than his own social circle, but thankfully he gets over harping on about this and takes more of a back seat as Maurice’s own investigations get underway.
Unfortunately there were some other downsides to this story. The quick pace of the beginning is not well maintained throughout the rest of the book and I feel that many readers will find the ending weak. The solution by itself is reasonable enough, but there is no way the reader could really figure it out properly for themselves apart from a lucky guess, given that it is quite convoluted and involves delayed or withheld information. Equally the way the solution is brought about didn’t hugely work for me and the story then drags on for another 20 odd pages afterwards.
I haven’t checked what other mysteries Browne wrote, but if anyone has a particular favourite of his let me know.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a special event (May Ball)