I wasn’t particularly taken with my first read by Shelley Smith last year. Maybe the plot didn’t fully grab me, but during my last trip to Barter Books, I came across this title by her. With some in-store credit to use, as well as having my interest piqued by the structural premise, I decided to give An Afternoon to Kill a go. I am very glad I did.
The book commences with Lancelot Jones, who is flying to Bandrapore to tutor an Indian Rajah’s son. A fault with the plane leads to a descent into a desert. Lancelot’s pilot is neither convincing with his geographical knowledge, nor his ability to fix aeroplanes, so Lancelot is relieved when he finds a building nearby. He soon finds out that an old English woman lives there called Alva Hines. These two are like chalk and cheese. Lancelot is a ‘tiresome Englishman with his passion for facts,’ who cannot convince of any reason why anyone would want to read fiction, an activity he sums up as, ‘a pernicious infection of the mind.’ Whilst Alva of course is the opposite, finding that fiction, poetry, imagination, can unearth truths that would have otherwise been hidden. The conversation soon turns to why Alva came to live in the desert and the book is mostly her telling her life history, which Julian Symons describes as ‘a dramatic tale of Victorian mystery and melodrama.’ But beware! This is no conventional story within a story. There is more than meets the eye…
Julian Symons, who introduces my edition of the book writes that, ‘this masterly tour de force is that rarity, a totally original work of crime fiction. It may enthral, amuse or annoy you, but will have read nothing else quite like it.’ Whilst I agree with the implied quality of the novel, I think it is not wholly accurate to say you ‘will have read nothing else quite like it,’ because the way Smith’s unfolds her deception upon the reader, is precisely by using genre types and plot tropes, which we do recognise and think we already know how to decipher. Symons also links this tale with The Thousand and One Nights, given the structuring of the book and its location. Yet for me I think it reminded me more strongly of Christianna Brand’s work, in its franker approach to matters, as well as in the character psychology.
Of course, what really holds this story together is the interplay between Alva and Lancelot. I think you are supposed to side more with Alva than her visitor, as the early narrative sets him up as a ‘dull young man,’ who is a ‘ridiculous young prig.’ Throughout her story he happily “corrects” her and even tries to explain her, to herself. The reader is not so taken in, as Lancelot is, though they don’t necessarily have the words to put to the suspicion they are feeling towards Alva.
It will surprise no one by saying that this is not a conventional puzzle mystery, though I think the reader still has questions to answer, the central one being: Why did Alva come to live in a remote desert? It is this question in particular which keeps the reader hurtling through the book. The story within a story, is a device which has often been used in mystery fiction, but I think Smith has executed this structure very well, peppering the tale with twists and turns. In particular her twists and turns are shaped in the knowledge that by using the story within a story technique, the reader will be interpreting the story in a specific and different way.
All in all, I would say this was a great read, with what I would describe as a delicious ending. It is a very easy read, which you can consume in one sitting, but it is also a very dangerous and slippery one because of this fact. I am definitely keen to seek out more books by Smith and thankfully the introduction to my copy has pointed me in the direction of some other titles. So, who knows, other Smith reviews could be in the offing!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Character with a similar job to yours
Calendar of Crime: July (2) Author’s Birth Month
See also: John at Pretty Sinister, has also reviewed this title, which you can read here.