I was very excited when I saw this book on Bev Hankins prize list of books, in a Dell Mapback edition no less! Having won her Follow the Clues Challenge last year, I had a great deal of fun choosing my book prizes and this was one of them. I loved my last Tilton read, so was excited to sample this one, as some Tilton novels are easy to get a hold of, whilst other are a bit more elusive. If you love your mysteries, zany, madcap and hilarious then this is definitely a series to try. Equally if you love Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen, I think you’ll also enjoy Leonidas Witherall, who is the protagonist of the Tilton books.
Before I begin to talk about the plot proper, a little background on Witherall. In this particular book he has independent means and is also the writer of a popular radio series. However in earlier books, (I think), he has acted as a professor at Meredith Academy, which comes up in this book and others, as he often relies on the help of ex-pupils when he gets into scrapes. He hasn’t always been well off as at some point in the series he loses a lot of his money on the stock market and takes up work as book shop cleaner, where of course someone gets bumped off.
Anyways to today’s read. It begins with Leonidas Witherall getting off, red faced, from a bus, after an unfortunate encounter with a ‘predatory blond.’ This earlier than planned departure from the bus means he is stuck in a town named Carnavon, though his mind is soon focusing on the awful realisation that the blond, who is wearing a scarlet coat and wimple, is racing after him. Fortunately for him he dives into a hardware store owned by an ex-Meredith Academy pupil, Lincoln Potter. Yet while Potter goes to get his car, things get even odder and even worse for Witherall. First of all a man in a green satin suit, hat and carrying a harp enters the shop and takes an envelope from the till. Secondly Potter returns to the shop, telling him that the police are looking for a man with Witherall’s description for annoying a lady on the bus and stealing her purse. Things get more awkward when Witherall finds the purse on his person and when Potter accuses him of having stolen the envelope. Witherall as a consequence ends up on the run from more than one party. He manages to make it to his old friend, Marcus Meredith’s house, only to find Marcus dead and his name labelled shoe rubbers by the body. Suffice to say Witherall managed to leave these shoe coverings when he escaped from the bus, so how did they end up here? Witherall also learns something new about his old friend, he wore a prosthetic leg, or rather he used to as that has disappeared. But why? Fearing wrongful arrest, Witherall and some others band together to figure out what is going on and you can take it as read that all the unusual characters, events and moments of mistaken identity all merge into one succinct and believable final narrative.
When discussing the plot lines he writes for his Lieutenant Haseltine radio series and novels, Witherall mentions ‘the viscid, fluctuating tentacles of the octopus of fate’ and I think it fair to say that the same principles operate in Witherall’s life. In fact he says at the end of the book that he will use what has just happened to him as the next Haseltine serial. Yet despite Tilton unleashing a large number of bizarre events at the reader in the story’s setup, which soon begin to spiral outside of Witherall’s control, Tilton herself never loses control of her plot and her writing style is a joy to experience. Hard to pick lots of favourite lines, as there are so many, but one I managed to remember to make a note of was: ‘Perhaps, instead of leaping into this ghastly blaze, he would have been wiser to have remained quietly in the frying pan of the Scarlet Wimpernel. He was even beginning to look back on the Wimpernel and the bus trip as the Good Old Days.’ It goes without saying that this book is tremendous fun, ranging from Potter nicknaming the ‘predatory blond’ as the Scarlet Wimpernel, to Witherall getting roped into running a charity auction and selling one of the organiser’s hats. With such an unusual chain of events, it is a pleasure to see Tilton not just make sense of them, but to also turn things upside down, as events and characters are not what you think they are. It can be said sometimes, that comic crime novels, can be a bit slapdash with their characters, but I think Tilton avoids this, making her characters engaging and believable. Aside from Witherall, another favourite of mine is Mrs Beaton, a master of organisation and running events. Yet she is far from dowdy and dull, as on meeting her Witherall says he heard from someone that she was ‘the one who crossed Tibet on a bicycle, and kidnapped a gang of Chinese bandits.’ I think the only thing which prevented me from awarding a full 5/5 rating to this book was the ending. The solution as to what has been going on is perfectly rational and all works out, but the way Witherall brings about the arrest of the real culprit just didn’t work for me; it went too far into the absurd. Perhaps it was one trick too many. However I wouldn’t let this put anyone off from trying this book or the Witherall series as a whole, as Tilton is a wonderfully entertaining writer, who keeps your attention firmly engaged in trying to figure things out.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): An author you’ve read before and loved them
See also: The Iron Clew (1947)