The Leonidas Witherall series which Tilton began in 1937 with Beginning with a Bash, is a series I have dipped into regularly over the last few years. So much so, that this is my penultimate read by her, as unfortunately this series is only 8 books long, concluding with The Iron Clew in 1947, (which ironically I read first). The only book I haven’t read yet, is File for Record (1944). Today’s read is the third title in the series, and I am quite chuffed that my edition of the book is the Dell Mapback version, shown opposite.
If there was ever a competition for best person at getting themselves into scrapes, then Leonidas Witherall would win hands down, as his flair in this particular department, is something to behold.
It all begins on a train to Boston, with Miss Chard doing her best to hide a suspicious brown package on train. There is a hint of danger in the air and unsurprisingly Leonidas gets himself stuck in the middle of it by investigating the package. Leonidas is on his way back to Dalton, having done an around the world trip and he is now keen to see his new home which should have been built in his absence. Whilst on holiday it has to be said that Leonidas has been terribly keen for the ‘E. Phillips Oppenheim tradition’ to be true. That ‘on every train or every ship there should be at least one intensely beautiful woman, who, furthermore, should be guarding a pouch stuffed with stolen emeralds.’ Unfortunately, it’s more the case of ‘mousey’ plain women who complain a lot or run at the sight of him, due to his likeness to Shakespeare. That is until a beautiful woman enters the scene and whilst younger men are bewitched by her looks, Leonidas is suspicious. It is this suspicious nature which leads him to go to the compartment of Miss Chard and just as he sees a hand beneath the blankets, he is rendered unconscious. Of course, when he wakes up there is no one else in the compartment. Once he has disembarked the mysterious incidents don’t stop and in the main, soon centre upon his new home and his next-door neighbour. In true thriller fashion Leonidas has to decide who he can trust, as respectable relations and acquaintances are far from infallible sources of proof of honesty. Yet he then has his very own whodunnit to solve, all the while adhering social etiquette and niceties, as local inhabitants impose themselves upon him.
Tilton concocts quite a fusion of subgenres in this story, and to her credit she fuses them well. Whilst the Leonidas Witherall series is firmly in the style of a screwball comedy, I think Tilton goes beyond its confines blending a mixture of thriller and whodunnit components. In particular the thriller elements are playfully and skilfully used, especially in the opening chapters on the train. Expectations are set up, only for Tilton to confound them, as well as use them to lay a few false trails for the reader. The two women on the train; one young and beautiful, and the other older and plainer, spring to mind, as Tilton makes it hard to decide which is victim and which is villain. The final answer on this one will surprise though.
Equally surprising is the fact that most of the novel takes place at Leonidas’ new home, (which has an electric powered bookcase ladder – so jealous!) This key location has a positive effect on the plot, making it less frenetic and adds solidity to the central murder. In some ways Leonidas and his compatriots are working as armchair sleuths, trying to unravel and make sense of the information they already know. This task is not made easy with the high volume of visitors to the house, none of whom mind that they are unwanted.
I would argue that this novel is one of the less zany ones, though I would also say that it has the most overt puzzle. As always Tilton impressively weaves earlier odd goings on with later events and the final explanation is mostly pleasing. There is one element, (which fleshes out when the character go outdoors again), which feels a little tacked on, however, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book too much. Cassie Price is comedy gold and is definitely one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much.
Whilst this series is out of print, second hand copies are available, though some titles are easier to pick up than others.
Calendar of Crime: June (6) Original Month of Publication