In keeping with other Hodder and Stoughton paperbacks of Wittings’ work, this one starts with a map, in true classic crime fashion and this time it happens to be of the centre of a town named Paulsfield. The book is set in July 1936 and begins with market day. Workman are drilling and a bull gets loose and begins to cause pandemonium. Nothing unusual in this, but what is out of the ordinary is the fact that at that very moment a cleaner working on the statue in the middle of the square is shot dead, through the head. Of course no one saw it happen, (‘Average Englishmen, he knew, had as keenly developed powers of observation as a congregation of turnips…’), though Inspector Charlton does the best he can with what slim clues he has to work with – the bullet, the angle it entered the body, potential places the sniper could have fired from and a suspicious parked van.
It is a difficult case as there is no obvious motive for the cleaner’s death. Yet Charlton’s investigation becomes even more baffling when two further murders are committed within the same day, and all taking place in the market square. It leaves Charlton wondering whether there is any rhyme or reason behind the killings. Or is he dealing with an insane enemy?
Witting unleashes quite a smart killer in his book, one who is adept at making use of natural cover i.e. naturally occurring distractions. The opening of the book is the strongest part and Inspector Charlton makes good headway with the investigation. We get introduced to a number of interesting witnesses/suspects, such as a widow who has an index card system on all the inhabitants of Paulsfield.
However, I think the more I read the less engaged I became in the piece. Maybe it was just the wrong time for reading it, but my attention began to wander quite a bit. The investigation gets stretched out somewhat and is only cracked through the inspector using himself as bait. Personally, I think Witting needed to weave in more tangible clues for the reader, (and the inspector for that matter), to work with. Charlton’s lightbulb moment near the denouement is somewhat unsatisfying with some straw clutching coming up trumps. This book also has one of the most abrupt endings I have hitherto encountered. Perhaps I am just having a relapse into being a reading grinch, but for a serial killer novel, it felt surprisingly untense. I think Catt Out of the Bag is the best title I have read by Witting to date, though I have yet to read one which has knocked it out of the park.
See also: Martin Edwards also reviewed this title on his blog last year, which you can read here.