Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Right Honourable Corpse (1952) by Max Murray

Murray is an Australian writer who has been getting a bit more blog exposure recently, as not only has JJ at The Invisible Event reviewed The Voice of the Corpse (1948), but the Puzzle Doctor, in the countdown to his 1000th review also looked at The Sunshine Corpse (1954).

Today’s read is set in Canberra and Murray begins his story, as he means to go on, in a blunt tone, which has little interest in preserving anyone’s feelings:

‘The Minister for Internal Resources was enjoying his last minutes on earth. If he could have seen himself as he was to appear a little later, it is doubtful if he would have looked quite so self-confident.’

It is only a matter of paragraphs until the minister, Rupert Flower, seals his fate, by drinking the poisoned cup of tea. I love the line: ‘Death was waiting at his elbow.’ It will come as no surprise to the readers that Flower was far from popular. From trying to cheat his nephew out of his livelihood, to planning to dismiss his brother in law from his cushy job, the queue of people who did not like Flower was a lengthy one. The story is seen mostly by a pianist, Martin Gilbert, who just so happens to be an undercover agent for the Commonwealth Security Service. He seems to be unable to stop himself from interfering in other people’s lives, which he does when he sees how several people could be wrongfully implicated in Flower’s death. Of course though he doesn’t interfere in a kind or polite way. His general modus operandi for trying to ferret information out of the case is by making those around him hate him. Then again he does use the ploy of blackmail to gain certain confidences.

Overall Thoughts

I have to be upfront and say this book didn’t hugely work for me, despite its strong starting point. I can see how Murray has created quite an experimental protagonist in Gilbert, yet I found the disparate parts of his personality and life experience, (making him bitter and cynical and yet keen to be hero), far too jarring. His posing as a blackmailer at times quickly wore thin and the ending in particular undermined the previous ambiguity with his character. Equally the flying references to his traumatic experiences in WW2, (i.e. his father dying in his place for shooting a German solider and his life in a camp), were just too fleeting to have much impact. It is a shame that Murray doesn’t quite pull this character off.

In some ways this book is too short to achieve all it could have done. Furthermore, I would say that of the pages there are, (160 in my green Penguin edition), there is insufficient action. The very minimal police presence and the limited new information that is unfolded in the story until the solution equally slows the pace of the story down. Events tend to revolve around the same pieces of information that are brought out early on and I think the decision to have the novel focus on a side line crime rather than the murder, was a mistake. The puzzle angle is also made to feel light due to the shift in tone and style of the book in that the plot begins to develop more into an adventure piece than a mystery novel. Consequently the solution is not entirely satisfactory and this dissatisfaction is compounded in my opinion by the ending which unsuccessfully tries to gel poignancy with romantic comedy.

So yes if you see this one in your local second hand book shop I would recommend giving it a wide berth!

Rating: 3.5/5

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