It has been ages since I last read anything by Forester, nearly 5 years in fact, but for those new to this author, I think he is widely considered as being a part of the Iles/inverted school of mystery writing.
Today’s story begins with three men, Reddy, Morris and Oldroyd, who have the fear of being sacked looming over their heads, after Harrison at work has caught them taking bribes. Yet this group is far from a happy trio as there is definite tension between them, since it was Morris who was the brains behind the felony and the one who got the most money, whilst Reddy and Oldroyd got dragged into the operation, but without much recompense. It is also Morris who is thinking about what can be done to ensure Harrison never talks. Get him fired instead? Or something worse? Morris makes the fateful decision on Bonfire Night, not forgetting to provide himself with some additional security by incriminating his workmates. Initially everything seems to be going his way, but we all know it can’t last that way for long… What depths will Morris have to plummet to, to maintain his position? Or will he overreach himself? And will his workmates ever be able to turn the tables on him?
This story feels quite removed from say the country house murders Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn often investigates. Murder in this book is almost like a primitive survival instinct, as Morris is far from being the introspective type. The only thinking he does, for his crimes, is concerned with the mechanics of the deeds and often these thoughts are not available on the page. As he becomes more successful his ego unsurprisingly inflates, which influences the running commentary he has for his life. Yet at the back of it all there is still a male fear and anxiety over unemployment and poverty, though of course the various male characters deal with this differently, some preferring to show bravado, whilst others begin to crumble. Based on my two readings of Forester’s work I wonder whether it is possible to assert that he writes a man’s world if that makes sense. His main characters, who propel the action of the plot are all male and it is their anxieties and dreams which fuel what happens. Women invariably seem to get lined up as victims, though ironic twists of fate often save them.
As an inverted mystery the main interest lies in what will ultimately happen to the killer and like in Forester’s Payment Deferred (1926), the consequences are never what you expect. The cat and mouse element of this story is particularly enjoyable, as you wonder who will come out on top at the end and means that psychological tension is maintained throughout the tale. Though unlike some inverted mysteries our anti-hero is no tortured soul and there are no attempts to soften Morris’ character. This is not a criticism, as I think the unsympathetic narrative voice works well in the story, though it perhaps limits the ironic humour available. The ending too is fairly blunt and abrupt. It fits with the story perfectly but may not be fully satisfying for the reader, though in some ways it gives the inverted mystery story a greater sense of verisimilitude. This ties into an idea I have concerning why Forester is perhaps less well known and revered as Anthony Berkeley, (who also wrote as Francis Iles), as I think Forester’s decision to choose greater gritty realism in his inverted mysteries rather than opting for the grander narrative twists and satire that Berkeley preferred, is maybe why his work is less memorable.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): At Least Two Deaths by Different Means