This was one of my purchases from the Moonstone Press and it is Sprigg’s first novel, so it seemed the ideal place to start with the collection of his books I bought in December.
Charles Venables is a journalist, who is advised to stay at a guest hotel in Kensington, by Lady Viola Merritt, who also incidentally is staying there and just so happens to be a woman he proposed to several years before. Viola equally intimates that something odd is going on at the hotel, and she’s not just referring to her peculiar fellow guests. This notion is vindicated from the moment Charles arrives, his request to stay not being warmly welcomed and he also overhears the manager’s husband tell his wife that they need to maintain the cover of this hotel being a commercial enterprise. Mrs Budge, the manager, becomes ill and is laid up in bed. One of the less bizarre guests, the elderly Miss Sanctuary, sits with her whilst her nurse takes a rest. Yet when the nurse wakes up, she sees Miss Sanctuary open Mrs Budge’s bedroom door, smiling, only then to see a hand come from behind and begin to strangle her. Miss Sanctuary is pulled back into the room and the door is locked. By the time the nurse and Mr Budges gain entry they find the room empty, though the window is open. Neither Miss Sanctuary nor Budges’ wife can be found. Escape via the window would require a great deal of dexterity, so how could anyone remove two women as well as themselves safely and successfully?
Miss Sanctuary is later found bound inside the wardrobe, yet the hunt remains for Mrs Budges, and when she is found, the mystery of her disappearance only becomes even more baffling to the reader and characters alike. D. I. Bernard Bray of Scotland Yard gets assigned the case who perceives this was an inside job and his suspicions rest upon Mr Budge himself, not least because of his shifty behaviour and the extensive income Mrs Budge is revealed to have had. But as is so often in mystery fiction, not everything is as it is seems…
Whilst not presenting a perfect puzzle for the readers to solve, I think Sprigg’s first foray into detective fiction is a very pleasing effort. A few pages in and the clues and hints begin to unfold, and they get you thinking about certain aspects of the situation. However, they give very little away about what is exactly going on and this applies especially to how the hotel is being used as a cover. Red herrings are not missing from this novel and Sprigg certainly pulled the wool over the eyes in one respect, pushing my thinking in one direction and then another, before unfurling the truth of the matter, which for me was highly novel.
Sprigg’s narrative is consistent in building up unusual events and startling reveals. These keep the reader ploughing through the tale at a rapid rate of knots, which of course also means you are vulnerable to being misdirected, having your attention brought to areas which hold less importance than you imagine. The number of twists and turns in the plot equally make it challenging, (in a good way), to see the wood for the trees.
Not uncommon for first time detective novels the writer also indulges in a few occasions of metafiction. My favourite comes early on in the story when Charles has had the strange encounter with the manager and her husband, followed by an even more bizarre meeting with an Egyptian guest who is sure he recognises Charles and believes “everything is up”. Charles’ response to this series of events is as follows:
‘When one bears a bloke threaten to kill his wife and then immediately afterwards meets a sinister and mysterious Oriental, it is time to move somewhere else, for one has obviously walked into the plot of a thriller of the vulgarest and most exciting description.’
I wondered if this was a playful nod to Knox’s rules. Nevertheless, readers do not have worry about this book being a thriller. It is a bona fide detective novel!
Despite there being a number of guests at the hotel it is easy to place them and Sprigg is quite good at employing specific guests at different times to take centre stage, meaning information is revealed quite naturally and in an interesting fashion. I also liked the individual touches he gives his characters and his careful choice of words means you can grasp what a character is like quite quickly. For instance, when it comes to a Colonel who is staying there, he is less than impressed when Mr Budge calls for his assistance, on finding his wife missing:
‘It was obvious, although he was too much of a gentleman to put into words. That it was very reprehensible of two ladies of mature years to vanish into thin air while he was playing bridge.’
Another entertaining moment early in the book is when a guest staying at the hotel has her cat Socrates used as a sniffer/tracker cat, giving the feline a garment belonging to Mrs Budges and then following where it goes. Initially this concludes in a moment of quite literal fishy bathos, but let’s just say Socrates’ next retrieval is more dramatic… The introduction to my reprint copy mentions that Sprigg lived in a boarding house with his father in Bradford when he left school and became a trainee reporter, so perhaps his time there inspired some of the background he includes in this story.
The tone of this book is quite light-hearted, which given the perhaps outlandish nature of the plot, suits it very well. A more serious tone would not have worked as well. Sprigg is comfortable operating within the more humorous end of crime writing and his narrative style is a pleasingly engaging one. A good example is when Charles is contemplating his failure to marry Viola:
‘Viola had two passions in life, her and her bridge. Charles had hoped to be a third, but he was beginning to abandon hope. He felt that while he might make her a satisfactory partner in life, he would certainly let her down at bridge.’
Charles is very much the amateur sleuth and his newspaper is glad he is on site to keep giving them helpful news stories. Throughout the text he hints that Bray is heading in a wrong direction, though very often he does not elaborate further. For me I think this is where one of the book’s weaknesses lies. Charles keeps things to himself a bit too much, allowing Bray to stray further away from the truth than is necessary, when a word from Charles would have got him back on track. Charles at various points also requests Bray does things for him, yet without telling him why. Both these aspects come across as a bit unfair to the reader, (well this one at any rate), and it is hard to not feel a bit sorry for Bray at points. Furthermore, the trained reader becomes quite sceptical of Bray’s investigation, which is detailed much more extensively than Charles’ actions. You just know Bray is probably barking up the wrong tree and there are times when you wish you could follow Charles’ investigation more.
However, the choice of killer is quite a clever one and Sprigg skilfully plays around with the trope of the obvious suspect. The case is full of oddities which makes it an engrossing and fun read. I do have one query about the solution, as to whether it would work or not, but it is not a significant point and does not dampen my enjoyment of this book. The concluding pages are a little melodramatic in flavour, but this is easily forgivable in a debut novel, which otherwise entertains. You can perhaps identify this as a first mystery novel by the fact it is chock-a-block of genre tropes, and some may call the amount excessive. In a weaker pair of hands, the number of tropes would have capsized the plot entirely. Yet Sprigg’s lightness of tone and his controlled handling of the solution means the pieces of the mystery, however peculiar, all fit at the end. I think it is apt that Bray says at the end of the book: ‘I don’t think I have ever heard of a case remotely resembling it.’
I had a lot of fun with this read and I look forward to trying his work again soon.
See also: Tomcat has also reviewed this title here.