September sees two British Library reprints by Julian Symons. I reviewed the first last month, which went on to hold joint book of the month, with a title by Carr no less, so I was intrigued to sample the second title. In his introduction, Martin sums up well the unusual mixture this story delivers, with its blending ‘of the traditional detective puzzle with a portrayal of life in Britain at the dawn of the Permissive Society,’ – a blend I would say starts and progresses well, but falters a bit at the end.
The start of the book has quite a Victorian feel to it, with a retrospective tale delivered by a coming of age narrator, Christopher Barrington, coupled with the country house setting, which is in a bit of a conscious time warp due to its owner, Lady Warington. Warington had four sons, two died during WW2, yet one of these two, David, returns years later keen to come home and no doubt get his hands on any inheritance in the offing, much to the displeasure of Miles and Stephen the remaining two sons, who believe David to be an imposter. Their mother though is convinced David is genuine and of course murder does indeed ensue, though not in the way you would expect.
Such a plot does make one think of books such as Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949) and the book does start out in a similar vein. Yet by the half way mark the novel evolves into something different, the differences not being something I can comment on too much, though the plot takes on a more action based style. Continuing on in this suitably vague fashion, (sorry), I think my reaction to the second half of the novel, a.k.a. the something different, is somewhat ambiguous. A cold case element shall we say certainly appealed to me, but unfortunately trips to foreign parts and the narrator getting his first hang over, kind of derailed the story for me a bit and lessened the impact of a rather good ending. Despite this Christopher is a strong narrator, a feature I also noticed in The Colour of Murder (1959) and I found him far more engaging than many other young-men-first-person-narrators-of-Victorian-Lit-Persuasion (and yes I may have used up my hyphen quota for the week). His naivety does not become grating or annoying, nor does he becomes priggish. The first half of the novel does a very good job at updating the country house mystery, hence finding it a shame that this location loses focus in the second half of the book. One thing which did pique my interest in this book was the significance of death in this book, or rather the lack of. There is little on page investigation of the first death and in some ways it functions more as a catalyst. So all in all this novel is an interesting experiment in genre fusion, though The Colour of Murder will still remain my favourite.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Julia at Northern Reader has also reviewed this title here.