Margaret Newman is the latest female mystery novelist Agora have brought back into print; an author I certainly hadn’t heard of. Yet intriguingly today’s read is the only mystery novel she wrote, and also the only title she wrote under the Newman name, and in the main she was a far more prolific writer of children’s novels and romances under the names of Anne Melville, Margaret Potter, (her married name), and Anne Betteridge. According to Agora she undertook various jobs before settling down to writing, including teaching in Egypt, editing a children’s magazine in London, and advising at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Twickenham.
Detective Inspector Simon Hudson’s courtship of Delia Jones takes a fraught turn when the choir his girlfriend is a part of, (singing and member of the managing committee), puts on a performance just before Christmas at Festival Hall. They are performing a new Mass composed by their very own conductor, Edgar Tredegar, with the BBC doing a recording of it and even a tenor from Italy is coming to take part. Yet the managing committee is far from a happy group. Tension and strife ripple upon the surface and seem to have exploded into the open when the assistant conductor, Owen Burr, is shot just as the performance concludes. Based on the victim and the angle of the bullet there are three areas from which he could have been shot, many of which containing choir members. It goes without saying that Owen was not Mr Popular and he seemed to have a real talent for being insufferably rude and unkind.
Once Hudson has put his foot in it, asking his girlfriend if she did the deed, his investigation progresses well. Motives are easy to come by for Owen’s murder, yet a second death, which takes place on Christmas day turns things on its head. Perhaps there is more to this case than meets the eye…
I don’t usually quote the opening of a book, so extensively, but I felt it was worth doing so here:
One of these days,’ said Delia, ‘you’re going to answer a murder call and find when you arrive that it’s from the Metro’s Managing Committee.’
Detective-Superintendent Hudson laughed softly in the darkness of the car.
‘I hope I arrive in time tonight, then, to carry you away from the scene of slaughter. What am I liable to find? The whole Committee stretched lifeless on the floor, surrounded by bottles of poisoned beer? Or only the lovely body of Delia Jones, transfixed by eight barbed agendas?’
‘Oh no, thank you: I don’t expect to be a victim myself. But there are times when I expect at every moment to become a witness.’
‘Then you must increase my chances of promotion by telling me the answer in advance. Who’s going to kill who?’
‘By that evasion I perceive that you have a guilty conscience. Obviously, you are the murderer. And the victim?’
‘I’ve no idea. I’m only sure that Owen will be one of the two. He has an incredible capacity for taking and giving offence—both at once usually.’
I think this extract shows Newman’s confidence and competency when it comes to romantic couples. The contrast between such moments in 1930s novels with this 1959 title is evident when we get, (slightly) more racy comments such as this one: ‘We have arrived, Delia. I’m the safest driver in London. That manoeuvre was expressly designed to bury your head in my chest, and it has been thoroughly successful. There will be a short pause while I take advantage of it.’ It is a little corny, I grant you, but it does have a sort of modern feel to it and their relationship/courting eschews the soppy as the novel unfolds. Given her romance novel background I would say this element of the book is far from perfunctory, (a criticism sometimes levelled at classic crime novels).
I also wondered when reading this book whether Newman had been involved ina choir society as the opening chapter at the managing committee meeting often comes across as satirical. So, I thought perhaps real life experience of such a group might have influenced Newman’s undercutting edge to her description of this body of people, such as can found in this line: ‘The Managing Committee of the Metropolitana, one of London’s larger choral societies, may have had music in its collective soul, but it had little beauty in its face.’
The case Newman presents us with has its intriguing features, such as the question of when Owen was exactly murdered and also why he took the place of his superior in the first place. Newman provides some interesting “secrets” which tumble out of the woodwork as the story goes along and I enjoyed the way she has Hudson discuss the case with Delia. I think she writes this part of the plot in an interesting way. Nevertheless, I think romance was more Newman’s line than mystery writing, as I think a seasoned mystery reader will quickly notice who the killer is. I certainly latched on to them when two key moments occurred, so I was anticipating a specific plot development. When it was not revealed during the middle of the novel, I had to assume it was intended to be the finale. The lack of attention it was receiving, despite the nod given to the reader, made my detecting hunch antennae twitch! The solution is of its time and perhaps in some ways is a simpler answer to put forward, as it doesn’t entangle the writer in complicated murder method mechanics. Yet it is a shame Newman didn’t persist in the mystery writing genre, as it would have been interesting to see how she progressed.
Source: Review Copy (Agora Books)