Witting is an author I tried for the first time in 2016, with Measure for Murder (1941). I remember enjoying this one and was keen to try more of his work. Yet like so many classic crime authors, his work was somewhat thin on the ground within the second-hand market. However, last week my luck finally changed when I came a listing on Ebay for three of his titles. I snapped it up in nano second, not least because they were all in the appealing yellow Hodder and Stoughton editions.
DI Harry Charlton is invited to an Old Boys’ Day at his school, Mereworth, and is invited to stay with old school chum, Sir James Hollander. Yet things are not quite so rosy in the Hollander household as they could be. James’ daughter Margot has become infatuated with a younger ex-pupil of Mereworth, Mark Longdon. Suffice to say he has something of a shady past and Margot’s parents are very upset with her determination to marry him and the reader soon shares their concerns as they learn through other characters what this shady past consisted of. One of these characters is the titular Rhino, a. k. a. Bernard Garstang. He too has something of a chequered history, especially if all the rumours are to be believed, and he is already aware that there are people in his past who would like to end his life. Heavy drinker, self-centred and armed, Rhino is a force to be reckoned with. He is using the school reunion as an opportunity to visit his estranged wife and his daughter, Diana. He is determined to have Diana come with him on his next posting to Port Douglas; a decision which also affects the Hollander household, as James’ son Gordon is head over heels in love with Diana and is resolute in following her wherever she goes. All of these connections are brought out over the two days coming up to the Old Boys’ Day and come to a head at the event itself. The title of the book somewhat gives away who is going to get killed, yet Rhino’s death does not take place until ¾ of the way through the narrative. A compressed police investigation follows, but all I will say is expect the unexpected!
Whilst Witting deploys familiar mystery genre components e.g. the school milieu, when it comes to structure, he seems to be a bit more experimental. Perhaps not Richard Hull experimental, but certainly more than some classic crime writers. Although bear in mind that I have only read two of his books, so this impression could be completely wrong. So, if you’ve read a few more, feel free to correct me! Nevertheless, this slightly more creative approach to structure means that Witting confounds reader expectations in dropping the book’s murder so near the end. I was quite surprised by the number of pages that go into the pre-death scenes. On balance though I think he probably could have conveyed the necessary pointers from these scenes in a more concise format.
The opening scenes are some of the best in the book, as the reader gets to enjoy being a fly on the wall within the Hollander family. The parent/child dynamic is entertainingly portrayed and there is much humour afforded over men obsessed with model railways, (FYI you mustn’t call them toy trains!) Unfortunately, though, I don’t feel there is a character you can get behind especially. The younger generation is too busy making poor life choices, whilst the older crowd becomes so numerous that we only get a passing glance of them. DI Charlton would seem like the most likely candidate, but after the opening chapters he somewhat fades into the background. Cutting down the character list would probably have helped matters and in a similar way to The Body in the Library (1942), which I reviewed yesterday, there are an awful lot of policemen in this book. Too many policemen, in my opinion, make it hard to get behind one particular sleuth, especially if they’re all policemen and not got an amateur in the mix.
Now on to the compressed police investigation. Initially events suggest something along the lines of an inverted mystery, but then new evidence suggests otherwise. I found this to be an interesting angle and given the array of clues on offer, especially physical ones, this could have been developed to great effect. But alas the limited pages meant this aspect is weakly executed and in order to reach the ending in time, narrative shortcuts are taken. This weakened the puzzle aspect for me. Witting also deals the reader a very sharp red herring, but rather than feeling surprise and chagrin for having been duped, this reader, at any rate, felt some disquietude towards the final solution given. If I had a closer understanding of the protagonists, or had got attached to them, then the moral implications might have been more satisfactory. As it was, it left me feeling cold.
It is a shame to rate this book as I did, as it had many features which I think could have been better developed. But the overall execution thwarts reader satisfaction. Although perhaps the final surprise is perhaps in keeping with Witting, as an author, who also flips things upside down in Measure for Murder. Witting’s style as a mystery author doesn’t seem easy to pin down and as such still fascinates me. So, expect more Witting reviews!
Just the Facts’ Ma’am (Gold Card): Means of Murder in the Title