This is another review, brought to you by the aid of the Puzzle Doctor Travelling Library. I’ve only read two Miles Burton novels previously, Death in the Tunnel (1936) and The Secret at High Eldersham (1930), which were good but they didn’t have me racing to track down more of his works. Thankfully the PD Library has quite an extensive Burton collection and today’s read was personally selected by the head librarian who highly recommended it.
This book is set during WW2 in the rural village of Exton Forcett, which is being plagued by a locum doctor called Kurt Wiegler. Not only is he upsetting his host, Hermione Cecil, the wife of the original doctor who has gone into active service, but he is interfering in the lives of others in the village, especially the doings of a local builder. Whilst the builder is decidedly shoddy in his work, Wiegler’s manner and way of expressing his opprobrium towards him, turns everyone against him instead. So no one is of course surprised when one day he is found dead at the bottom of a pit near Gallows Woods. Yet at the inquest an accidental verdict is given and even though Captain Desmond Merrion, (naval intelligence chief and our amateur sleuth), points out some irregularities with this finding, the local justice of the peace, Sir Mark Corringham, is not that keen to probe this matter further, preferring to see the death as ‘an act of war rather than private vengeance.’ One character has it right when she thinks:
‘It was like a detective story without the detective. A man has been killed, and the community in which he had lived had made up their minds that he had been murdered. Yet nobody, from the highest to the lowest, seemed in any way disposed to track down his murderer.’
And for some time, it seems like this is how things will remain, until a sudden change of events stirs people into action.
I definitely got a different experience of Burton with this one, in comparison to my last reads, primarily I think because of the way he structures the plot. Whilst Captain Merrion is still the one to solve the mystery, he takes much more of a back seat/off set role in the first 3/4s of the novel. As I hinted at earlier we don’t get much of an investigation immediately after Wiegler’s death and it is only a sad turn of events which cause more to happen in this quarter. Normally this would slightly irk me, as I’ve always felt Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger should have been a non-Miss Marple novel or had Miss Marple much more involved earlier in the story. Yet when Burton does something similar, I didn’t have the same uneasiness. In fact I think it helped us to get to know the suspects better and to have more of an invested interest in them and their fate. It might also have something to do with the sleuth in question, as Merrion is not a character I want to spend as much time as possible with, unlike our dear Miss Marple.
And as for the suspects/local inhabitants, I think Burton has improved the way he characterises them. They feel more fleshed out and lively. Sir Mark and Lady Sylvia Corringham were probably my two favourites and Burton has a lot of fun with their interactions, with sparks of humour flying as a battle of the sexes plays out underneath the surface of their conversation. I don’t mean this latter point in that they are battling with each other, but I did begin to notice a sense of a gendered debate when the pair of them talk about Hermione Cecil and her husband. Often Sir Mark points out St John’s gross selfishness and deficiencies as a spouse and conversely the difficulties of living with such a woman as Hermione, yet in some ways he seems to place less value on the faults of the husband than those of the wife. It is never made into an explicit big issue, in the way Dorothy L Sayers would tackle the theme, but it is nevertheless present. Gender also comes up in another way but I am in two minds as to whether it is telling the reader more than they need to know, so you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
Unlike my last read where I thought I had solved the case and then realised I was hopelessly wrong, in this story I did actually guess who the culprit was, having gone for which person would be the most fanciful to choose. However it was not until Merrion begins to launch his trap for the killer that I managed to put the case together, a few paragraphs before he goes on to explain it himself. The solution is probably not unique but it is not one you come across every day, so for me felt rather unusual. I think my only significant niggle with the book is the way that certain pieces of information in regards to motives and past events, get over repeated and in these retellings the information is not shortened down. Yet as my final rating shows this was an entertaining read and a good introduction to Burton’s work. Not sure how easy this book is to find but if you come across I’d certainly recommend snapping it up.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Retired from or in the armed services
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