This book completes my reading of Branch’s comic crime novels. Though this is not a very impressive statement when I point out that she only wrote 4 novels between 1951 and 1958. Like many authors her best reads are her earliest two, The Wooden Overcoat (1951) and Lion in the Cellar (1951). Nevertheless I think it was a shame she stopped writing so soon, as I see her left field approach to mystery fiction as a continuation of the work begun by Anthony Berkeley and Richard Hull, amongst others.
I rarely indulge in such long quotes, but this opening paragraph by Branch is deserving of it, giving you a clear idea of what she was like as a writer:
‘Clifford Flush had murdered nobody since 1939. For fourteen uneasy years after his acquittal, he had tried to persuade himself that the tiger in him was fully tamed. He assured himself that he had no desire to lay a hand in anger upon anyone in the world, except a fellow-member of his bridge club named Armitage. In 1953, unable to endure the man’s pleasant smile and cautious bidding for another hour, he was overcome by an irresistible impulse and pushed him under a bus in Piccadilly.’
However Armitage is unharmed, though not impressed with Flush’s behaviour. Rather than going to the police he requests Flush leaves the city and selects for himself a rural retreat. Whilst Flush is not too keen on this, he does convince his other club members to join in with him in setting up a Homicide Consultancy School. Oh yeah didn’t I mention that the club he is a part of, is for murderers who have been acquitted of their crimes? Having selected a very unattractive property, called Dankry Manor, in a valley with a history of violence, disaster and misfortune, (after all one doesn’t want to draw in half-hearted uncommitted wannabe murderers), prospective pupils come flooding in. But Flush and his fellow staff members, (one of which is only known as the Creaker), have their hands full when they receive their latest cohort of pupils: writing hack Chloe Carlisle and her lover and editor Cyril, who desire to put Chloe’s husband out of the way, two American gangsters who just so happen to want to kill each other and Bill Thurlow, whose intended victim has done such a despicable thing that Flush wants to bump him off himself. But what did they do? Of course things do not go to plan: Cyril starts having second thoughts about Chloe when he sees the manor’s secretary, Bill shows an impressive inability for murder, oh and let’s not forget about the body that appears in the pool. Has one of the students decided to get in some extra curricula practice in? Or has one of the staff gone berserk?
In a sentence I would say the narrative takes a very unconventional trajectory; a car journey not along a nice straight road, not even down a windy road, but very much an off road plot, which somehow holds together and keeps you wondering what will happen next. The psychological setup was certainly an interesting one for me, ranging from the mentality of the various ‘expert’ killers vs. those who aspiring to such heights. First impressions of course undergo modification many times as the book unfolds. The ‘school’ element of it all adds to psychology of the story as well, as the staff assess and analyse the students for their capabilities as killers. Much comedy is to be had as the students tackle the different subjects they have to face such as ballistics, court etiquette, body disposal and poisons. The strengths of the gangsters in some subjects contrast with their difficulty over some of the written assignments.
Comedy is also conjured up through what the text leaves unsaid and a classic example of this is to do with the Creaker, who has a minimal presence in the book. The other staff members only give oblique references to his crimes and his arrest, much to his dissatisfaction, yet he is always tantalising cut off just as he tries to reveal the gruesome details. There is also something deliciously ironic about the situation when Flush is faced with murder on his premises. Investigation into it is begun, in a refreshing way, yet it trails off as other events take precedence. I think Branch also has a lot of fun with her characterisation, in terms of affirming and undermining notions of what criminals are like. The prospective murderers also present a nice variety personalities. In some ways I think the setup of the book can be regarded as a subversion of the country house mystery novel.
The main weakness with this book comes in its final third, once the investigation begins to peter out. The pacing begins to drag and the various smaller events don’t quite produce the bang the book needs. However, the final few pages do present a charming denouement to the piece, with an interesting power reversal. I think it is a shame that Branch stopped writing as soon as she did, as I think she had an original turn of mind when it came to plotting. Thankfully second hand copies of her work are easy to obtain online and I would urge you to grab them if you see them.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Time/Date in the Title
Calendar of Crime: March (7) Book Title has a Word Starting with M
The Wooden Overcoat (1951)
Murder’s Little Sister (1958)
P. S. Modern day readers when reading this book will notice an unintentional unknown killer in the book when they read of the students having a lesson in ‘an outhouse […] entirely constructed of asbestos.’
P. P. S. This book is dedicated to Christianna Brand, so it was quite fun to spot one of her titles with in the text, Suddenly at his Residence, though whether its inclusion was intentional or not I am not sure.