I have known about this writer for quite some time and have even read some positive reviews of her work from bloggers such as Aidan (Mysteries Ahoy!) and Martin (Do You Write Under Your Own Name?) But as usual it is only now that I have finally got around to trying out Holding’s work.
Alcoholic Arthur Van Cleef is invited to a boarding house run by an old widowed friend, Emilia Swan. Though the invite is not one of recreation as Emilia claims she is being blackmailed. To make the trip even more of a strain for our rather burdened and worn out protagonist, a young man called Russell Blackman has attached himself to him and insists on sticking around to help out. Arthur had helped Russell during a difficult time in his child hood and it seems even now he is struggling with life; a superior intellect making him as likeable and liked as a scorpion or a bottle of poison. Suffice to say Arthur feels sorry for him, yet at the same time is not very comfortable around him.
When they arrive at the boarding house they find the inmates somewhat at odds with each other. The blackmail angle fails to spurt into life given the lack of an actual threatening or menacing letter. Emilia is not the sympathetic character you might have been envisaging… Keen as mustard Russell begins to dig into the past and finds out something Arthur would rather not know about the death of Emilia’s husband. Yet on the tail of this moment of denial is a stream of increasingly violent events – arguments, threats, poisonings and eventually death. Will Arthur finally take upon himself the mantle of detective and sleuthing? Will he finally do something about all of the information Russell brings him? Will he quite frankly, do anything?
So, my final question above may give you a slight hint as to how much I enjoyed this novella…
To be fair to this book it is trying to do a particular thing, shall we say, which without giving away specifics, goes somewhat against the genre grain. This culminates in a “shocking” ending, which again to be balanced yields a highly unusual motive for crime that I have not come across before. It is an irregular ending which raises a number of ethical queries. Yet it is not a satisfying denouement. A satisfying conclusion is not one which just shocks. A shock in and of itself does not guarantee a pleasing end and in fact needs to be carefully built up to. If not, the reader starts to begrudge the volume of pages they’ve read to arrive at that juncture, and something like this happened to me. I didn’t think the ending gave a good enough payoff for the issues the previous narrative inflicted.
The primary source for these issues is Arthur. He is just not the sort of protagonist you want to follow around in a mystery novel: ‘He was tired, with the hopeless fatigue of a ghost.’ You start out feeling sorry for him, but it doesn’t take long for this sympathy to wear off. Now an amateur or accidental sleuth may be reluctant to begin investigating but eventually they cave in and get stuck in. Yet I feel Arthur is impressive in his resistance, which does persist throughout the entire narrative. In a competition for best impression of an ostrich with its head in the sand, Arthur would have no rival. I have never seen such reluctance before, and of course this has a number of knock on effects for the novella’s pacing. Despite only being 132 pages long this story still felt too long, largely because of Arthur’s belligerent aversion to facing the truth and doing anything. Arthur’s reluctance is no doubt intentional on the writer’s part, but it does little for reader enjoyment.
Another big problem I had with this book was with the prose style, as it is consistently disjointed, making it hard to follow at times. There is a great deal of dialogue, which normally is a good thing. But unfortunately, it is not embedded within enough non-dialogue prose, which means that the narrative has a very jarring tone, as the text repeatedly jerks in different directions. Add Arthur’s dependency on alcohol and you don’t have a very easy read to work with.
This is a great shame as there is a nugget of potential within this story and Holding does develop a very unusual Sherlock Holmes parody within the character of Russell. Personally, I think it is the character of Arthur which scotches this tale’s brilliancy and prevents the creativity of the plot to flourish – the disturbing and macabre elements of the book are there but they are left hanging in an awkward and haphazard fashion.
See also: Curtis Evans at the Passing Tramp has also reviewed this title.