This is a special read for me as File for Record is the last Leonidas Witherall mystery for me to complete, in this 8-book series. Though bear in mind that this is not the final book in the series, as this being me, I have read the novels out of chronological order. I am aware that Tilton’s novels are not for everyone, as they have their own brand of comic crime, which weaves the unusual and hilarious into a mad escapade of adventure and detection. But it is a writing style which has always worked for me and I am rather fond of Witherall as a character, so much so that I wrote a separate post on his value as a sleuth, which you can read here.
The story commences with Leonidas trying to write a letter to the owner of the Haymaker dry goods store, Ross Haymaker. Leonidas is a newly appointed director of the store, but it seems he had a far from pleasant encounter when he went to the lost and found department in the store to locate his umbrella. He and another lady are both outside this department. The door to it is locked and so Leonidas goes to the lift to summon a lift operator. In this task he fails and when he returns to the department the door is open, but the woman is gone. Unsurprisingly when Leonidas goes through the door, he is knocked unconscious and wakes up in a hamper in a French bread delivery van.
Yet arriving home only leads to more unusual happenings, (when doesn’t it?) A cake box is left at his house by a woman who has run out of gas for her vehicle, an oil delivery arrives as well as an area alarm, which means Leonidas has to leave his property to act as a warden in a given area. On returning home he finds Ross dead in his own study, stabbed with a sword. The mysterious woman at the lost and found, as well as the unknown cake deliverer seem to be the same person, Constance Lately, and her first question is why has Leonidas killed Ross with her great-great-grandfather’s samurai sword?
Neither of them are keen to call in the police straight away, as it seems both of them received a knock on the head and a trip in a hamper basket and unfortunately the time on the victim’s watch covers the time they were unconscious and therefore unable to prove their alibis. Both fear local police prejudice would be unhelpful, as it would harm Leonidas’ position on many committees and it also just so happens that Constance married Ross 30 years ago and then ran away with the best man at the reception. Their plan is to solve the crime before going to the police. All they need to do is initially establish their presence at the local Victory Swap event, but I think everyone knows that nothing is that simple – especially when Leonidas is involved…
Those new to the series will probably be worried that I have given a great deal of the plot away. After all I have babbled on about it for three paragraphs. Yet those more familiar with the series will know that these sections cover a mere couple of chapters. Things happen fast in Tilton’s novels, (making them to murder to summarise!) So fear not! No spoilers have been given.
As always Leonidas has to sleuth in secret avoiding the lengthy number of people he has to avoid, who would imperil his pursuit for the truth. This understandably leads to various shenanigans, including accidentally stealing a US Navy vehicle. But it wouldn’t a Tilton adventure if tightly controlled chaos did not ensue. The Criminal Record, from The Saturday Review says it well when they write that in this book there is ‘something going on every minute in this one, from initial thump on sleuth’s cranium to unexpected outcome – also much hilarity’ (13th March 1943).
It would be fair to describe the plot of any Witherall mystery as manic and zany, yet I feel to some that equates to a book which makes no sense. Nothing could be further than the truth as in this book Tilton produces a highly choreographed plot, with characters’ plans and activities crossing over with each other’s. Seemingly they produce a muddle of odd circumstances, but you can rely on Leonidas to unknot them all.
WW2 has a consistent but behind the scenes role in the book and the story provides an interesting picture of the American home front, with the rationing that was taking place, as well the wide variety of resource and fund raising events which communities were putting on, such as the Victory Swap. An increase in female and more elderly workers is also a theme in this story. Although one of the most useful things women can do for Leonidas in this story is having fake faints in order to give him the chance to leave the vicinity, (as naturally you can’t pursue a man if a woman nearby has fainted. It’s just not done.)
I think my reasoning for giving this story a lower rating than other books in the series is that a lot of narrative is stuck in Leonidas trying to get out of places in order to get elsewhere, only to get trapped again. This is part and parcel of any Witherall mystery, but I felt in this instance that the information gained was not as much as it is in other stories. Consequently, I felt that whilst the solution is perfectly sound, Leonidas’ deductions lean slightly too much towards the theoretical. There is an interesting clue used, which I completely missed, yet I felt that without the trap at the end Witherall would never have proved any of his ideas. In other novels in the series I think Leonidas has had more tangible clues to go on.
Nevertheless this story remains a fun read.
See also: Moira at Clothes in Books has also reviewed this title.