Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Not only have I been excited by all of the Richard Hull reprints, I have also been eagerly awaiting the reprint of this novel, by Melville. My first encounter with this author was with his novel, Quick Curtain (1934), shortly followed by Death by Anton (1936) and then a few months later, Warning to Critics: A Murder Committed by Alan Melville (1936). Yeah I did know how to binge when I first started my blog and given my voracious reading of Anthony Berkeley and Delano Ames last year I haven’t learnt my lesson yet, as of course the major downside of binge reading an author, especially a hard to get a hold of vintage crime author, is that it is hard to obtain copies of their work, meaning after the first flurry of 2-3 books, you have nothing else to read by them for quite some time.
Weekend at Thrackley was Melville’s first novel, which I think shows itself in the more thriller mode he writes in, as well as in his approach to humour. We’re certainly not getting full on Melville, as we do in Quick Curtain and Death of Anton. Martin Edwards says today’s read was influenced by The Red House Mystery (1922) by A. A. Milne, which having now read the book I would definitely agree with, with Melville playing around quite cleverly with some of the tropes used by the earlier story. Melville’s novel went on to be adapted for a film, with its name bizarrely changed to Hot Ice (1952). In his autobiography Melville said it did not adhere to the original story very much. No change there then. But I think it is a shame that none of his other books were adapted as Death of Anton in particular would be quite a good choice.
But on with the review. The opening of the book sees Jim Henderson, another WW1 veteran unsure how to assimilate back into civilian life and employment, receiving an unexpected invite for a weekend party from Edwin Carson, owner of Thrackley, a country house. Carson was supposedly a close friend of Henderson’s now deceased father when they were both in South Africa, but Henderson does not remember him, however the fact that Jim’s friend Freddie Usher has also been invited makes him decide to accept the invitation. But a bit like Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman (1942), ‘Carson’s motives for assembling his guests are not purely social,’ Martin writes in the introduction and boy are his motives far from sociable! Even by chapter 3 you’re anxious for what Jim and Freddie are letting themselves in for and it is here that I will stop my synopsis. I think this is a book which could be spoilt by too many details.
One of the many things I like about Melville’s work is that each novel is distinctive and different from the others, not only in terms of milieu but also in terms of structure. Though I was still surprised by Melville’s choice to do a light hearted thriller, with unexpected touches and hues of darkness. The term thriller can sometimes be read as a code for a poor read or a poorly plotted book, but that would do injustice to this novel, as with Melville you can always rely on him to surprise you along the way and not to do things how you might suspect. Equally I think the type of plot Melville presents the reader with, means there are still things to mull over and ponder, trying to predict how things will resolve themselves. Melville is a dab hand at writing the openings to his stories and this book is no different. Whilst many an author spend pages and pages or in the case of P D James tens and possibly hundreds of pages describing the personalities and characteristics of their protagonist and those around them, Melville manages to do this within one paragraph using the ringing of Jim’s alarm clock.
As in Death of Anton, Melville plays around with the Watson figure, as Usher sort of takes this role on, being a not hugely bright sounding board for Jim as he tries to figure out what is going on within the story. Yet a surprising character for me, was Carson himself, who is quite villainous, as the level of malevolence he reveals was quite unexpected for me coming from Melville, who usually seems much more Wodehouse than Iles. In fairness there is still the Wodehouse element elsewhere in the novel, particularly in the more subtle brand of humour Melville uses, which is predominantly understatement and social comedy. The comedy of the absurd you find in Death of Anton is not present here, but then again it wouldn’t have probably fitted. One example of the humour which I particularly enjoyable was Jim’s parody of an advertisement looking for a job for himself: ‘pleasant and extremely good looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job.’ To which he reflects ‘that the subject of the sentence was much too far away from the verb to make the thing at all pleasant to the ear.’ Additionally Melville also has fun with interrupting his narrative at times with asides, which cut off a flow of conversation, allowing things to be left un-tantalisingly unsaid and there other moments here and there where you can see Melville playing around with narrative form and structure, elements which he uses much more extensively in his later books.
I think the only area which was a little bit weak was the ending. I felt it lacked a little oomph, despite the intended final twist. I suppose I only feel it a little more because I know the heights he reaches in his later books. Not a weakness to put you off adding this to your British Library Crime Classics collection though, (we’ll all have one of those right?), as there’s lots of other things to enjoy about this romp. Fingers crossed that the remaining Melville novels will be getting reprinted at some point in the future, (preferably soon!).
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Country House Mystery
P. S. A sentence which may confuse modern day readers who are not up on their horticulture: ‘the owners of the cottages had been somewhat conservative in the planting of their gardens, and Dorothy Perkins seemed to have a complete monopoly where climbing over wire arches was concerned.’