A US marines unit is a setting first for me and Aleutians, 1944, is the book’s overarching location, not that we find out much about it. But more anon. Violence and weapons are not the opening gambit though, rather it is an assault against the ‘Great Battle of Boredom.’ Reading material is at a premium, scraps of newspaper to pad out parcels are devoured within minutes by bored recruits. Yet one such scrap reveals a startling piece of information for our narrator, Pete Robbins, who realises that a murder has taken place at SUDS, (Society to Uplift Domestic Service), where he used to work. The scrap says that Paul Stetson, his former boss, admits to the killing, but the killing of who? And here of course is where the story’s title comes in to play… The newspaper extract is torn in such a way that only a few words or partial words remain. None of which indicate who was killed, though Pete narrows it down to the 10 key figures at the office. The regiment decide to hear about each person and then pick who they think is the likely one to be the corpse, all in the form of a lottery sweepstake. The majority of the rest of the book barring about 25 pages is Pete’s narrative of his four years of employment at SUDS, charting the tensions, jealousies, rivalries and mutinies which slowly and then increasingly build up. Within our potential victims list we have a thwarted mistress, an old school friend who wants to do more than milk his chum, there’s possible blackmail, affairs and a keen teetotaller, determined to use the company for their own political ends.
As you can see this book plays around with an extreme form of withheld victim identity, the name only being revealed on the final page. This is certainly an unusual premise for a mystery novel to take, given the priority usually bestowed on the suspects. In a way you can see this book as the ultimate exercise in armchair sleuthing, as all the characters have to go on is Pete’s narrative on the personalities involved and the newspaper clipping. It sort of reminded me of Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936) and in fact we do get a blow by blow account of a bridge game Stetson has with others in the company. Five Little Pigs (1942) also came to mind when it came to the old school friend, who has been scrounging off Stetson ever since Stetson threw a paperweight unintentionally at him at school, an accident which lost that friend one of his eyes. The sense of an ungoverned temper, which is guilt tripped afterwards sprung to mind and I did wonder if it would be a part of the final solution.
So how effective is the setup? I have to admit that it is a flawed piece, despite the interesting opening concept. My main issue was that rather than having Pete’s narrative interspersed by conversation with his friends in the present day, it was one long piece of prose, which was reminiscent in structure of a Georgette Heyer novel. It chronologically itemises all the brewing fights within the organisation, almost making the reader wait for someone to be killed. Yet of course that is not going to happen, as the death has already occurred and Pete’s story will not directly touch on it. Consequently I feel the book loses its experimental flavour and that the uninterrupted narrative reduces the impetus to solve the mystery as an armchair sleuth. Interspersed conversations as I say, would have arguably upped the ratiocination element of it all, in my opinion of course. Only last week JJ was articulating his difficulties with stories that involve diary formats, feeling that the prose contained within is too neat, orderly and overly detailed to be a realistic diary. Now this is not an issue I have, rather enjoying such typographical novelty, yet I found in this story I was coming up against a similar problem, finding Pete’s account unbelievably detailed. It didn’t bug me all the time, but it did crop up from time to time. The final section back at the marine camp was enjoyable in bringing a different tone and there is some enjoyable humour, but I found the ending a little limp. The solution is plausible but it lacked a little impact for me.
In some ways the extensive story from Pete is far more effective as a near satirical portrayal of American society at the time. The whole concept of SUDS is only taken seriously by the characters and even then mostly for the money they can garner from women subscribing to their publications on all things domestic. The way big business harnesses and exploits nationalism and societal values for monetary gain is a huge theme in this book, as is the way publicity is used for this end. Gerr presents a very different setup from something like Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (1933), but the publicity milieu is equally well conceived and I think the author captures the group dynamics very well. Even on the very first page we have Pete so desperate for reading material that he will read a lady’s fashion advert, though the words for it seem to be loaded with humour in my opinion:
‘I was handed a piece of a dress ad which informed me that a lady’s “heart collection” would grow by leaps and bounds if she stepped out in the latest all sequin dance dress with tiny waist and pencil slim skirt. (Sizes 12-20, available in black, silver and aquamarine.) Unfortunately, the drawing was torn below the waist, so I was left in the dark as to the “heart-shaped bodice.”’
So this book is not a complete success, but is an unusual oddity to sample if you can come across it cheaply.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Strangulation
Calendar of Crime: May (9) Military Figure or Mother has a Major Role
P. S. I was slightly bemused when one of the characters says that: ‘Paul made quite a name for himself playing football […] so he was offered a job in Wall Street.’ Were/are people really given important jobs because they’re good at football in America? Or is this another joke?