So far in my reading of Sprigg’s work I have come across a London residential hotel setting, as well as one set at a flying school. But today’s read sees a far more unusual locale, the country of Iconia, to which amateur sleuth Charles Venables has gone by request. Here it seems the elderly Queen Hanna is in fear for her life, having received threatening letters, anonymous of course. It is Venables job to track down the letter writer, yet his commission changes rapidly when the Queen is found strangled by a museum relic, with a murderous past of its own.
Out of the three novels I have read by Sprigg I would say this one has the most complex plotting, with the puzzles the central murder poses, achieving a layering and interconnected effect. At the heart of the case is the question of what was the Queen going to announce the following day, which was so awful that she had to be killed for it? Then there is her manner of death. She is found in a room with barred windows and only one door which was guarded by six men at all times. The guards say no one went in between the time they started their guard duty and when the mistress of the wardrobe went in and discovered the Queen dead the next morning. The time of death quickly rules out an Israel Zangwill type solution. However, things get more complicated as the question arises of how the victim got into her room in the first place, as she was seen by more than one person in her State Office after the time the guards came on duty. There is also the query of why the killer redressed the corpse. A John Dickson Carr vibe is thrown into the mix as there is a legendary curse upon the royal family and a ghostly apparition which looks like the Queen is also seen after her death. So as you can see this is a crime which gives the reader a lot to work with in terms of complications and things to fathom out.
Nevertheless, this is not an impossible crime mystery which will be solved by alibis and physical clues. In fact, Sprigg has Venables set the local chief of police on a wild goose chase looking for a secret passage to keep him out of the way. From the outset Venables believes that this is a case which will be solved by uncovering the motive, which will identify the who and then enable the figuring out of the how. This is not an approach I am against, but I something I am less keen on did spring out of this strategy. Venables very much plays his own game in this story, holding his cards tightly to his chest. Within the context of the story I can see why he would need to do this, as justice is dicey matter in Iconia, but the problem for the reader is that we know Venables knows who the killer is, but due to the lack of overt questioning in the case means we increasingly end up just watching Venables watching unfolding events, occasionally stepping in to push things in a different direction. By and large a lot of the solution has to be delivered through documents, (which are only revealed at the end), and confessions from the relevant parties. I’m not saying readers won’t put two and two together, for some parts of the case, but I felt the submersion of the investigation into Venable’s everyday activities, slowed down the pace of the book. It at times felt like things weren’t really moving anywhere and that Venables was just biding his time. The impossibilities also seem to take a backseat. However, this is just my own take on it, so both Martin Edwards and Tomcat seem to have not had this issue. Furthermore, Tomcat actually says in his review that ‘in terms of plotting, Death of a Queen is unquestionable the best one I have read to date.’ Contemporary reviewer, Torquemada also notes that ‘the action of this cheerful murder tale […] does not creek at all but leads us smoothly, by means of an ingeniously intricate path, right up an Iconian garden. Mr Sprigg packs a stout last-minute punch.’ I might disagree with the comments on the action, but I do concur in the ending, which resolves matters with a strong dose of moral ambiguity that works rather well and is very appropriate for the setting of the book.
Like Tomcat, I noticed the way the opening of the book reminds the reader of Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ with the male royal arriving in incognito. Sprigg plays around with the Holmes’ parlour trick of making deductions about new arrivals and also with Holmes’ tendency to know obscure bits of information. For instance, people are impressed when Venables is aware that Isorb is the capital of Iconia, yet this achievement is rendered bathetic when Venables mentions he only knew it because of a crossword clue the other day.
Sprigg is adept at creating his fictional Balkan country, developing its history and culture, avoiding some of the pitfalls other contemporary novels fell into when doing the same. The concise, yet informative introduction in the Moonstone Press reprint, helpfully sets out the literary context for this type of story:
‘Many “golden age” books have a plot (or subplot) involving an imaginary European kingdom, often on the brink of revolution. The inspiration for this subgenre was “Ruritania,” the setting for Anthony Hope’s bestselling 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda.’
Sprigg even references the book in this story, though as Martin points out that ‘Sprigg recognises the difficulties’ of writing such a plot, ‘and explicitly, if rather cheekily, makes it clear at the outset that Iconia is no Ruritania.’
Sprigg is known for his Communist leanings, so it was interesting to read his depiction of an absolute and conservative monarchy, where things run on a feudal basis. I rather wonder whether he is actually satirising and parodying such an institution. We are quickly shown how the country is financially in low water and suffering from inflation. The palace is poorly maintained and there are insufficient funds to manage the upkeep, with everyone staying at the palace having to pay for their own alcoholic drinks. Many very highly titled people work at the palace in various roles, which sound rather grand, yet Venables makes the point that: ‘It was hard to remember that a Count with a pedigree as old as Christianity had probably only two shirts and the income of a British miner.’ Perhaps we even get a dig at British Imperialism in this text as well, as Britain has a strong relationship with Iconia. Britain put up the money for the oil companies to operate in the country and the oil comes to them, yet the royalties paid to Iconia equal the interest and repayments required for the loans Britain gave to Iconia. So Iconia doesn’t particularly benefit from the deal, a situation a palace official critiques more through what they don’t say than by what they do. Despite the setting of Iconia sounding rather fantastical, I feel as though it still managed to resonate with the instability of the European political situation in the 1930s.
Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that this story ‘strikes exactly the right note for this of extravaganza; with enough gentle humour to make the absurdities of his one-horse kingdom entertaining and enough romantic glamour to keep the murders in key.’ This is something I do agree with, as Sprigg keeps a strong handle on the tone of the narrative. Moreover, Venables despite his tendency to keep things to himself, is an enjoyable sleuth. He is by no means infallible and the moments where he ends up making social gaffs or in life-threatening pickles are rather amusing.
So I think it is fair to say that this is the most unusual classic crime novel I have read this year, putting pain to the stereotype that all Golden Age detective novels are set in English country houses where the butler did the deed by poisoning the sherry. Sprigg destabilises the tropes of this subgenre by placing his crime within a turbulent land where it is not guaranteed that justice will be served and truth will out. Yet Sprigg does so with his comic flair, which is not out of place or absent in this title.