I was pleased when I learnt that the Dean Street Press were bringing out more titles by E & M. A. Radford. My last read by them was Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), which I very much enjoyed. Today’s read is the 11th in Radfords’ Doctor Harry Manson series. Nigel Moss, who writes the introduction, points out that this character ‘held dual roles as a senior police detective at Scotland Yard and Head of its Crime Forensics Research Laboratory.’
The novel begins on a commuter train ride from London to Brighton, in one of the first-class coaches. The same group of 7 workers have invariably shared a coach together over the past few months. Yet during this journey home one of their number dies of strychnine poisoning, namely Alexis Mortensen, editor and owner of Society, a trashy newspaper which made its money out of upper-class scandal. Doctor Manson happens to be on the train and quickly takes charge and it is not long before he is convinced that Mortensen’s death was not due to suicide. He believes it was murder and fears it may even be of the perfect kind. Given the quick reaction time of strychnine and the fact Mortensen had not consumed anything in the 15 minutes before his death, it seems near impossible for someone to have killed him. But Manson is nothing if not determined…
The story gets off to a great start. We’re anticipating the death, which is foreshadowed, but unsure when it is going to be unfurled. The opening is well-paced, and the crime setup leaves you suitably intrigued. Due to the difficulty of figuring out how Mortensen ingested the poison, the investigation takes a less conventional direction to begin with. So it takes some time into the novel until we begin to focus on the seven suspects in the coach. Though by and large we spend most of our time with the police whose primary focus is initially to do with the many skeletons in Mortensen’s closet. The activities of other suspicious characters also complicate the investigation and make it harder for the police to see the wood for the trees. I like how Manson does not figure everything out straight away and then not tell anyone. He really seems to have to mentally wrestle with the facts of this case before he solves it.
The Radfords provide a detailed police investigation in this tale and it was interesting to see the procedures and technology that were being used at that point. A huge importance is placed on facts, so the eventual solutions feels like one that has been confidently arrived at. There is no sense that the detective has had to make big mental leaps to get there. The “how” of the case was not something that I could figure out, though the Puzzle Doctor thought it was ‘guessable without too much scientific knowledge.’ According to the introduction ‘the death method was hailed by the publishers as “new to modern whodunits.”’ However, I don’t have to feel like a total dunce as I managed to alight upon the who around the half-way mark. The text gives you enough clues to figure out the motive as well prior to Manson revealing it. It was also surprising, in a good way, to see the Radfords concluding on a degree of poignancy. The only criticism I would have of this book is that it needed shortening as the final third drags a bit. Nevertheless, this is another solid effort by the Radford writing team, and I look forward to trying out more of their work.
Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
SPOILER – DO NOT READ THE PARAGRAPH BELOW UNLESS YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK!
One thing puzzled me – Why do these seven people continue to choose sharing a carriage with Mortensen day after day, if he was blackmailing them? Was it part of the blackmailing deal? Why would you want to spend any of your leisure time with that sort of person? I appreciate they had to in order to create the plot but psychologically this was maybe a bit too implausible. That said I did think it had an echo of Murder on the Orient Express, where a body of people all have something against one man.