Virginia Freer is staying with her friends, Helen and Andrew Boscott, for a holiday when she finds her estranged husband, Felix, on the doorstep. Given his questionable employment history she wonders why he has he turned up. What’s his game? Conflicting thoughts plague her as she recalls how awful it was living with him, yet a part of her is still glad to see him. You could class him as a small-time crook who lies so frequently that it is a second nature to him. Although the lies are more about personal history and activities, as opposed to nasty or insidious ones about others. He is keen to meet Basil Deering, the poet cousin of Andrew – an interest Virginia distrusts.
All four of them go to a party hosted by Barbara Gabriel, which is celebrating the engagement of Basil to Carleen Mansell. Carleen, a widow, is one half of a sister writing team and currently lives with her sister, Olivia. Yet it is not long after Virginia, Felix and the Boscotts return home that Olivia bursts through their door announcing that she has found her sister murdered, shot in the head. Once more all four head out, yet when they arrive at Carleen and Olivia’s home there is a distinct lack of a corpse, along with Carleen’s handbag and car. Is she still alive and merely faked her own death? Or is Olivia lying? The answer to this is not immediate and, in the meantime, murder strikes once more. Additionally, this second death has grim implications for Virginia’s light-fingered husband and discerning his role in the series of unusual events is high on her priority list.
Most of the reader’s time is spent with Felix and Virginia and it is through them that we find out what is going on and I think on the whole they are an enjoyable duo to follow around. Their separated status is not made a big deal of and is also not overly emotionalised, which I liked, as sometimes in modern crime novels, personal issues can overtake the narrative focus. Felix is an intriguing main character to have, especially since he is the one who does the most active sleuthing and considering of the crimes yet is also the most dubious of the two. Although Virginia intimates at one point in the book how his tendency to lie is actually helpful for detective work:
‘Something made me glance at Felix. As a terrible lair himself, he was always inclined to believe that everyone else he encountered was a liar too. But he could be quite acute in sifting truth from falsehood, recognising the small signs that betrayed invention…’
He works separately from the police and they remain unaware of his activities throughout the story and in one respect you could even say he unintentionally muddies the investigative waters for them. I think it was important that Ferrars didn’t make Felix too criminal a character. He’s more indolent and morally weak, than a nefarious crook.
Another aspect I found quite pleasing was that this is a story which wastes little time in getting down to the mystery and despite it being published in 1980, the book does not have an overtly 70s or 80s milieu. Yet at the same time doesn’t feel particularly anachronistic – a balance which I felt was another merit of the novel.
The initial crime involving Carleen has an interesting timing aspect and the two deaths do not connect easily. It is hard to figure out who would want to commit both crimes. The final solution deals with this effectively, yet for me I think it needed to be better clued. Otherwise the story has a number of positives from the very engaging writing style and characters to a pacey and incident filled plot. Definitely a change from some of my reads this month.