This is my first experience of Margot Neville’s work, with Neville being a penname for two Australian sisters, Margot Goyder and Anne Neville Goyder Joske. Both grew up in Melbourne, but then moved to Sydney. This is the 9th in their 19-book series involving Inspector Grogan, which began with Murder in Rockwater in 1943 and concluded in 1966 with Head on the Sill. They also wrote several non-series titles as well as many plays. Today’s read took them 6 weeks to plot and then 6 months to write, according to a newspaper interview, and is their first mystery to be set in Melbourne. It was serialised in The Australian Weekly and in fact was even commissioned by them. Why? Well alongside the serialisation they also ran a special competition linked to it. I have decided to write about this competition in a separate post, as it’s details will be better appreciated once you have a better understanding of the novel.
The book begins with what we later realise is Irene Francis’ final day to live. From the moment she gets out of bed she is restless and not at ease. We follow her through her remaining hours. We see her frayed nerves break down further with Larry Bannerman; her ardent suitor, despite the fact she has a husband back in Queensland. Larry works in an architect firm but is also entering the Olympics in November as a sprinter. Her lack of sleep also takes her to a doctor’s appointment. Yet her evasive answers as to who she is seeing, (Dr John Innes-Muir), will alert any reader that something else is afoot, and they would indeed be correct. Hints of drug use are first planted here and cryptic remarks such as ‘we must – you and I – we must clean up our lives… somehow,’ also fire the armchair sleuth’s imagination, wondering what past connection there is between the two of them.
Then of course there are all the other people who are less than happy that she decided to come back to reside in Melbourne, having left so many years before. There is Herbert Archer who keeps on pestering her about some sort of proposition to get her out of her rented accommodation. There is equally both Hazel MacPherson and Emmy Downes, who have cause to be worried that their potential or actual love interests are being distracted by the dazzling beauty of Irene. Whilst Penelope and Ross Bannerman are worried that Larry will once more lose out on winning his race at the Olympics due to Irene’s malign influence. So initially when she disappears for 5 days, most people are unconcerned, even her roommate, Camilla Lloyd. Yet at the close of a birthday party the police arrive and inform them that Irene has been found in the river, her body poorly weighted down, though suffocated before she reached the water. Detective Inspector Grogan is called into investigate, but will he be able to untangle the many clues he is faced with?
This writing duo certainly have a way with words and I particularly enjoyed the opening lines which introduce us to Irene Francis, who suffice to say is not a morning person:
‘The whole aspect of Irene Francis as she got out of bed […] spoke of her incompatibility with the morning that greeted her from the garden […] Irene’s expression […] rejected it all uncompromisingly. The sun brings only added peril to the animal caught in a snare who knows the dark hours of anguish are dawning into the daylight hours of discovery […] the rind of a new day as harsh and painful to bite into as the skin of a pineapple.’
I like how you are given a series of expected images, before suddenly having an unusual one thrust upon you, which I felt was quite effective.
For reasons, not even known to myself, I presumed this was going to be a mystery in the psychological suspense mould. Yet, having read it, I think it is much more of a puzzle murder mystery. As Grogan’s investigation unfolds, (which we get inside and outside perspectives on), we find he has quite a number of leads and clues to follow up and fit into the correct pattern. The Nevilles’ use of the red herring is very adept in this novel, as several of the leads are in fact dead ends, which do not factor in the final solution, yet obfuscate Grogan’s path to the truth. In particular I would say they muddy the waters as to when things happened, as timing is very crucial in this case, as if Irene died at a certain time then the list of culprits is considerably narrowed down. A key clue is the empty bottle of chloroform in Irene’s bathroom and it is one which Grogan brings to the attention of the reader, through his discussion with a subordinate.
The story, at times, portrays things more from Emmy’s point of view and once Irene dies, she becomes the more focal female character and there is also an additional mystery with her, as the reader tries to fathom how she feels towards the doctor. Both characters have an integral role in the plot and the unravelling of the murder. Although things take place in a city, the writers still create a close-knit community where news travels fast; a feature which produces a much more strained atmosphere for the suspects to live under.
The writers unfurl a delightful last-minute surprise which turns things upside a little, yet what made this book lose marks in the end, for me, was the rushed conclusion. Personally, I think they could have tied things up a little more explicitly and with greater detail. Nevertheless, this initial encounter with the Nevilles’ work has definitely encouraged me to try further titles from them. The Olympic background is interestingly used, and the case is full of incident and information for the reader to work on, giving the narrative quite a pacey feel. Fortunately, a number of their titles can be picked up online second hand, so getting a hold on their work is not quite so hard as it is for other vintage authors.