First read and review of the month. I know! It’s terrible. Four days in to the month after all. But hopefully you’ll forgive me.
Raymond Postgate is well known for having started The Good Food Guide and his most famous crime novel, is his first: Verdict of Twelve (1940). For me this is the pinnacle of his career as a fictional writer. His second novel, Somebody at the Door (1943) is good, but doesn’t reach the same heights as his first…. And then there’s this one, which unfortunately cannot be described as even average. They say there is one good story in all of us and personally I think Postgate achieved this in his first book, but then he decided to have a couple more tries.
This book is set in the early 1950s and has a civil service/ministry scientific community milieu. Desmond Maverick has been sent by his department to Chellerton, a government research unit. The reason for this trip is a letter he received from friend and scientist, Henry Proctor. He is a difficult man to work with and in his letter he mentions how he wants to reorganise his department, being dissatisfied with a number of things. He is also under the weather with anaemia and his letter also hints at some other ‘unhappy business.’ To Maverick this all seems tiresome but events take a more intriguing turn when he finds that his fellow train traveller, a Chief Inspector Holly is also heading for Proctor’s, due to a suspected information leak from the research facility, and to cap it all off when they arrive at Proctor’s house they are told he has died two hours before, suspected leukaemia due to the pernicious state of his anaemia. Of course things are not as they seem…
Now based on this summary you might be thinking this book can’t be all that bad, as it does have a number of unusual elements and in fairness the start of the story is quite good. Maverick is a good character for the story to open with as the author indulges in some satire at the civil service’s expense, foreshadowing of course comedy series such as Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. The setting of the research facility is also not a bad choice as it is quite remote, meaning its inhabitants are forced into each other company’s too much and suffer from boredom. This of course all leads nicely into gossip, feuding and acrimony – ingredients which are essential for the vintage mystery novel. I also found this setting interesting in how it creates characters who seem empty or barren inside. There is also the peculiar events which bring Maverick and Holly together and in a way the most intriguing elements of plot synopsis above, come from the first 50 or so pages.
Yet unfortunately after this point things go rather downhill. Firstly we are subjected to a 60 odd page middle section which charts Proctor’s life from 1915-to the present. This is meant to be information Holly receives from Maverick to get an understanding of Proctor as a young and middle aged man, but to be honest this section is massively uneventful and says very little. Equally despite the advantages the research setting gives Postgate, he doesn’t exploit these at all and we either find out very little about characters, so when they are involved in things later on it feels forced, or we have long sections where we get to know more about certain characters, but none of this information is relevant or interesting. In some ways it is a form of padding. Whilst other padding is of a more scientific nature, recalling back my days doing GCSE science. Perhaps the worst sin of this book is the sheer lack of investigation, which in the main focuses on 3 documents and who handled them. In the last 30 or so pages more occurs but it is all rather rushed and told rather than shown. However perhaps an old glimmer of the halcyon days of Verdict of Twelve can be found in the closing line from the killer. It is priceless and did make me laugh out loud. If only the rest of the novel could have been like this!
Finally I have also come across my disturbing sentence of the week: ‘Miss Myers rose, smoothed her skirt over the pelvic basin…’
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): An author you’ve tried before and loved