Tilton a.k.a. Phoebe Atwood Taylor, is another favourite author of mine, but this time round I was hoping I would have more success than I did with my last read by Ethel Lina White.
Our protagonist is Leonidas Witherall, who across his eight book appearances leads a varied career and in this book he is currently in the position of reopening a local school for boys, which had been requisitioned by the Navy due to the war. Witherall was left the school in a will and for the reopening he is taking on the role of headmaster. However those around him do not realise he is also the writer of the famous Lieutenant Haseltine thrillers and in fact the book opens with him desperately trying to finish the latest manuscript by the end of the day. However you will not be surprised that his writing is interrupted. Firstly by his charlady who despairs of him and all the visitors the house has had and she has had to deal with. Of course Witherall, very much lost in his work these past few weeks, has no clue about the things or people she refers to. So when she leaves he is baffled by the series of visitors he gets: two delivery men insisting on depositing a deep chest freezer with him, despite him not wanting one; a girl who tells him her mother wants a goldfish and a woman in a beautiful ball gown who has come to sing happy birthday to him, irrespective of his birthday not being until July. Matters get more complex and ever more ridiculous when he opens the freezer and finds his newly hired French teacher stabbed inside. The fact he shares the same name as the newly arrived neighbours and that the birthday singer refuses to leave until 12, adds further mystery to the quandary Witherall is in. Who would believe his story of the events? Why have all these people with their various queries been directed to his house? Keeping the police in the dark, as usual, Witherall sets out to investigate and of course gets more than he bargains for…
Providing a synopsis for a Witherall adventure is in some ways a bit of a pain. It’s like trying to numerate and name all the pieces of spaghetti on a plate. Reading such a plot however is not painful in the least. The narrative will seem to be spiralling in a number of directions, but Tilton always has a tight control of them like a plate spinner and neatly weaves the strands together, (somewhat mixing my metaphors here, but you get what I mean).
However I think there is something a little bit different going in this book, in comparison to other novels I have read in the series. The story begins in the usual way throwing zany after zany plot event upon the unsuspecting Witherall. However by around page 44, (out of a 218 paged novel), a number of the odd events have actually been explained. Instead the remainder of the novel in some ways feels more of a breathing space in which the big questions are answered – i.e. the whos and the whys of the murder. Within this breathing space though a number of misunderstandings develop and in some ways they take up more of the novel than the bizarre goings on and perhaps even influence the actions of Witherall more. These misunderstandings are also directed at the reader as well, especially the reader who has read other Witherall tales, as you think one is happening, which will lead on to A, but in fact something different was taking place all along.
As always in a Witherall novel, lots of fun is had in which his life parallels or parodies the events he writes about in his Haseltine adventures. For instance he writes a better fight scene than he can actually do them and the highlight is when his charlady is determined to see the mystery through, identifying herself with the glamorous blonde Lady Alicia, who assists the Lieutenant. Unsurprisingly she is not quite Lady Alicia material… (though is probably better with her fists than her employer is).
In terms of the solution all the pieces fit closely together and the who is not too obvious, as Tilton effectively casts suspicion over a number of different characters. Sometimes I think more puzzle focused readers avoid books like this one, fearing there will not be much to figure out, but in this tale, I feel Witherall gets much more time to discuss the case with others and theorise about what might be going on, based on information they have collected. Whilst this book may have a slightly lower “zany” factor than the others I still found it to be tremendous fun and a fast paced read. Whilst some titles in the series are harder to find than others there are a number which are available second hand for under £10 and sometimes under £5 online, so it is a series I can recommend, which you stand a good chance of being able to try. There are only three left in the series for me to procure: Cold Steal (1939), The Hollow Chest (1941) and File for Record (1943), so hopefully I will get my mitts on some of them this year.
P. S. Weird character name alert: Terpischore Hall (Unsurprisingly the girl shortens her first name to Terry).
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