It’s day 7 of the blog tour for Mortmain Hall and Cross-Examining Crime is the next stop. This new release is the title I have been most anticipating this year, having loved the first book in the series Gallows Court (2018).
Mortmain Hall opens at the London Necropolis Railway station with Rachel Savernake tailing a man on his way to the funeral of his mother. This man, Gilbert Payne, faked his own death and has been out of the country for many years. He has taken a big risk coming back and his life is in danger. Rachel is there to prevent that, but is Gilbert willing to cooperate?
Meanwhile Jacob Flint, newspaper journalist, is in court, reporting on the Clive Danskin case, Clive is on trial for murder, accused of killing a man and burning the corpse in his car in order to fake his own death. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, and a guilty verdict is predicted – yet Clive couldn’t be calmer or more collected: ‘Throughout the trial, he’d resembled a spectator at a game of croquet rather than a man on trial for his life.’ Does Clive know that an 11th hour rescue is in the offing?
Two other names join the list with Gilbert and Clive, which Rachel is given by a private source. How do these four names link up? Of what interest are they to Rachel? And why should they all be invited to Mortmain Hall, home to the unconventional criminologist Leonora Dobell? The answers lie at Mortmain hall, but does death also lie in wait there for our protagonists…
In keeping with Gallows Court, Martin once more delivers an intricately and deceptively crafted plot. The start of the book is akin to a camera lens zooming in on one small square of a painting and as the chapters unfold, it is as though the lens begins to zoom out, so you can see more and more of the artwork. Yet, the armchair sleuth, will naturally have a sneaking suspicion that despite “seeing” or “knowing” more, the picture is still incomplete or even not quite the right way up. The spider web like nature of the plot fuels this delightful misgiving as the narrative threads don’t conform to a predictable pattern or shape. There is no big or central crime to focus on in the book straight away. Instead there is a series of mysterious circumstances, echoes of cold cases and violent eruptions in the presence. Nevertheless, the aim, for the reader, is to figure out the end game of the principal players – antiheroic sleuth included.
I really enjoyed the opening of the story, with its unsettling first sentence: ‘The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage.’ The paragraphs that follow this line, demonstrate Martin’s ability to wonderfully disorientate the reader and to leave them unsure what will happen next. The funeral train setting at the start of the book was a good choice in my opinion, as it achieved the right note of eeriness. I also felt it a rather unusual and therefore intriguing historical element to incorporate.
The Rachel Savernake series is one which openly declares its intentions to interact with golden age detective fiction. I think Martin’s approach is enjoyably distinctive in the way it tackles the theme of the perfect crime; a theme which also interested a number of classic crime writers, leading to collaborative works such as Six Against the Yard (1936). Fans of interwar detective fiction will also have a lot of fun reading this book, as Martin includes a myriad of allusions to works from the period. It does make for an entertaining challenge to have with oneself, to see how many you can spot. The map of Mortmain Hall and the clue finder at the end of the book, are two of the more overt examples. But I would say this story also makes nods to The ABC Murders (1936), (with Clive as a travelling stockings salesman,) Ethel Lina White’s The Man Who Loved Lions (1943) and Sayers short story ‘In the Teeth of Evidence’ (1939). The structural device of having the epilogue bookend the narrative also put me in mind of the work of Richard Hull. As well as all of these allusions to golden age detective stories, Martin’s book also weaves in several parallels to true crime cases of the era such as the trial of Edith Thompson and the murder of Julia Wallace.
Martin’s protagonist, Rachel Savernake, is one of the many strengths this series has. She is undoubtedly an anti-heroine, which has an interesting effect on the way she unravels crimes and the way she acts on the information she finds out. Her approach to being on the side of good is decidedly ambiguous. Unlike other fictional detectives, she does not provide reassurance or certainty when it comes to justice and righting wrongs. It is not for nothing that we are told Gilbert Payne ‘was hoping she belonged to a nightmare.’ As an anti-heroic solver of crimes, the text shies away from conventional rescue scenes where the lead character saves the day and provides the fairy tale happy resolution. In both of the Savernake tales, the solutions and the means by which they are achieved are not clean cut and are often quite messy. Rachel may say ‘gambling for high stakes is in’ her ‘blood,’ yet it is not only her own life she is happy to gamble with, which I feel makes her character engagingly problematic, especially given her lack of concern for those who die. Minor characters are used by Rachel and her adversaries, to do more dangerous tasks and the risk of death is one which is very much realised. Moreover, the partnership between Rachel and Jacob is highly uneven, which leaves Jacob in an extremely precarious situation. As he himself notes, Rachel had ‘given him pieces in a puzzle, but the picture he could make with them was incomplete.’ Although Martin further complicates the picture by making sure that Jacob remains responsible for his own actions. Jacob’s surname, Flint, is somewhat ironic, with this story revealing him to be more vulnerable than his name suggests.
I think even Captain Hastings could surmise, based on my review, that this is a book I strongly recommend readers to buy pronto! Though I think readers will get the most out of it, if they have read Gallows Court first.
Source: Review Copy (Head of Zeus)
So I had a few more comments I wished to make about the book, but I felt that they gave too much away about the plot, so I have kept them separate below.
Reflecting on the book as a whole I think there is some mileage in suggesting that it is an inversion of the concept behind The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). The secret organisation in Martin’s book might be designed to protect the country from internal chaos and revolution, yet its methods are volatile and unethical. It too wishes to invite Rachel on board, like the offer Bundle receives in Christie’s novel, but given the corruption and executions it is involved in, we’re not surprised she turns their offer down. There is also a strong nod to Ordeal by Innocence (1958) as well. Clive Danskinm’s alibi initially seems unproveable because the driver of the car who supposedly gave him a lift, cannot be traced. Again, Martin handles this plot device in an interesting fashion.
Finally, I also liked Martin’s variation on the trope of having the suspects gathered in a country house, to hear the solution. Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951) reveals the disintegration of the country house ideals and Martin’s ending seems like the next step in the evolution of the country house mystery novel, in the way the house and what it represents, is completely destroyed.