All avid readers have their authorial standbys, writers they can depend on to deliver the goods and White, in the main, is one such author for me. My expectations were certainly heightened going into this book, based on my last White read – Fear Stalks the Village (1932), which I read in August and loved.
The book begins with the announcement of Charlie Baxter’s death, not by fouls means but by plain and simple old flu. There is no serious thought of murder, just perhaps some concerns over medical negligence; a doctor past his best and an unsympathetic wife. Eyebrows are also raised due to the third wheel in the household, lodger Puggie Williams. Is there a dalliance going on there? No one would say they were close to Baxter, but he was well-liked, got into the spirit of the social life of Starminster and could be relied upon to dance with the less desirable partners. However by the end of Chapter 2 the reader knows that not all is as it seems. After all Baxter is still alive… Baxter’s less pleasant side begins to show through as well and the reader is plunged into a three person insurance scam. Initially the trio have had beginners luck but they are not out of the woods yet… Many dangers without and increasingly within the group, remain to be faced.
Now keen mystery fiction readers may think they know how this inverted mystery will pan out. I was definitely one such person, yet you can rely on White to go in a different direction with the big and small elements of the plot and don’t go underestimating those small parts… Never has White surprised me more with such an inconsequential, yet incredibly dark moment than she does half way through this book. The narrative after the funeral takes odd twists and turns, so the reader does not know where it will end. As one problem is resolved another one crops up for one or all of the trio.
I found it unusual that the principle character is a male, as White’s novels invariably place a woman as the central protagonist, such as in Some Must Watch (1933), The Man Who Was Not There (1941) and The Wheel Spins (1936). Baxter makes for an interesting protagonist, as he certainly plays with your sympathy levels, yet it is hard to think of another character whose carelessness is so dangerous. His co-conspirators are not the only ones wondering how well they really know him. Yet it is no one man show and Vera, Baxter’s wife, is also another strong character of the book, as again your attitudes towards her undergo a shift as the story unfolds.
The plot of this book, as well as its characters really gripped me, so I flew through this book, yet I was still able to stop from time to time to admire White’s writing style which include a number of gems. Her style is often concise yet it packs so much in. You really feel like she has considered every word, such as in this line: ‘It was a terrible shock for her, when the man who had reminded her that she was a woman as well as a ratepayer flicked out of her life, in one casual sentence by the librarian.’
Whilst a dark ending is foreshadowed you’re never sure what is on the cards, nor who will be holding the winning hand at the close of the novel and when I finally reached the end I found it to be a very powerful and dramatic finale and certainly not one you would predict from the opening chapters. Another strong read by White definitely makes me think that her work should be more widely available, as well as adapted from. Her ability to craft suspense as well as her well-developed female characters would fit in well with current mystery fiction and TV adaptation trends. This is by no means the easiest book of White’s to obtain but there are copies out there so I would strongly recommend picking up a copy if you find one.