I am continuing to work my way through the collection of Sprigg titles that I bought from Moonstone Press last Christmas. Though typical me I have been reading them out of order. This is Sprigg’s 2nd detective novel and the plot it contains certainly shows the ambitions of a young writer fresh to the genre. Yet despite the eventual complexity and intricacy of the mystery, its initial premise is aptly described in the reprint introduction:
‘Crime journalist and amateur sleuth Charles Venables is confronted with the murder of his boss, Lord Carpenter. Director of the biggest newspaper group in the world, Carpenter has been agitating for war with Russia through a sustained campaign in the press. He has engineered an atrocity sure to tip Europe into conflict immediately, but before this can be reported in the papers, Carpenter is found dead.’
The newspaper milieu is an interesting one, perhaps because it was not used as extensively as say, the country house setting. I think this background contains many aspects which still resonate with modern society, not least the power newspapers have, (for good or bad), to influence and shape national attitudes. The reprint introduction provides further helpful details on this setting, pointing out how in the interwar period newspapers were being bought up by a few individuals, and that ‘at this time four men dominated the industry, owning about half of all papers sold, and some used this power to pursue anti-spending and anti-socialist agendas.’ The introduction goes onto say that there is ‘more than a passing resemblance between the fictional Lord Carpenter and the real-world Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook.’ How much sway these newspaper barons had politically, was of concern, and this is a theme which weaves its way through the mystery plot.
Sprigg is well known for his ‘conversion to socialism,’ yet at this stage of his writing career it had not occurred. It was after writing this book that he began to research Marxism more intensively. So in this book ‘socialist activity in Britain’ surprisingly is satirised, with communists characters being depicted in a rather ineffectual, hypocritical and belligerent way.
One advantage of choosing such an unpleasant victim, is that there is no shortage of motives, with the politics so unpalatable and his treatment of his employees dire. Add in his caddish behaviour towards women and the potential for his death to have been ordered from no less a figure than the Prime Minister himself, and you begin to wonder who wouldn’t want to kill him! Sprigg’s satire is wide ranging and not even the Prime Minister is immune from it: ‘He was a poor listener. He had reached his present position largely because he never bothered to grasp what his opponents were saying.’ But it is the sort of satire which points out the hypocrisy and unjust behaviour of society yet does not demand a change. The tone somewhat cynically accepts that things will always be this way.
Despite this book of big “rights” and “wrongs,” it does not hold a moralistic tone. This is not Sprigg’s soap box, and when it comes to how the victim is perceived, it is interesting to note that regardless of his actions being deemed deplorable, he is still admired and felt to be a ‘genius.’
The opening of the book sees the build up to Lord Carpenter’s plan, with the various strategies he has put in place to prevent it being thwarted. He is so sure of himself that he says to his staff:
‘If you gentlemen were to jump on me simultaneously and cut my throat with that, you would be able – perhaps – to upset my plans. Aside from that unlikely conjunction, War is as inevitable tomorrow as the dawn.’
Whilst his throat remains intact, this egotistical moment unfortunately plants an idea in someone’s head… When Lord Carpenter is unveiling his horrifying plan, readers might be surprised at how little reaction it elicits. One young reporter makes a verbal protest, but despite the others being concerned for his job, they do not back his principled stance. Maybe we would today expect some kind of revolt or full-scale rebellion from the staff, yet this does not occur. Perhaps it is easier to read more into this sort of acquiescence retrospectively, knowing what catastrophic events the world was going to become engulfed in, in a matter of years.
There was a lot that interested me in this book, but I do now have to begin sharing some of my bugbears with this novel. Never does a reader feel so sorry for a policeman, as they do in this tale! I’m surprised Detective Manciple didn’t turn into a homicidal maniac given the provocation his suspects and witnesses give him. I’m sure it would have been deemed justifiable homicide! The sheer scale of the obstruction the police face is staggering and even from characters who you expect to play fair, or who you think would have no reason for concealing crucial information.
Initially suspects refuse to cooperate with Charles or the police, and it takes a while for Charles to worm any information out of his colleagues. The big problem is how extensively this trope is deployed by Sprigg, as added to the suspects playing dumb, Charles arrogantly taunts the police with his reticence over pretty much everything relating to the case. Consequently, the reader spends a lot of time in the dark as if the suspects and Charles don’t talk, then the reader is restricted in what they can find out. It is not surprising that the investigation gets off to such a slow start. A reader expects suspects to be difficult with the police, but I think their obstruction is too in your face and this becomes frustrating.
Based from other tales by Sprigg I am used to Charles playing a lone hand, with his end game being somewhat unpredictable. Again, this lone hand aspect makes him a very uncommunicative character and his high-handed behaviour makes him rather unappealing to the reader. His knight errantry for instance, leads to him calling on higher political powers to force the police into doing what he wants, and this level of manipulation does not seem fair. Even other characters in the book get annoyed at the way Charles is ‘hamstringing’ the police, to effectively spare someone’s feelings. I did at one point think to myself that his behaviour made early Roger Sheringham seem considerate and helpful! To do Sprigg justice some of the hampering is later explained, but it is a risky trope to use, as it can have a negative effect on the reading experience. Once Charles’ subterfuge is dismantled, two-thirds of the way through the book, the reader feels like they’re more on an even footing with him. Every mystery writer has the challenge of hiding their solution for as long as possible, whilst at the same time giving the reader enough information that they feel like they can puzzle out the case. The level of police obstruction in this text makes this plot lean rather one way more than the other.
Despite having a hunch early on, which Charles hints at near the start of the case, it is some comfort to see that he does not find it easy at all to prove his suspicion. In the final third the reader can see who Charles is gunning for, but again the issue of proof stymies him. The denouement shows Sprigg’s flair for the creative, presenting the reader with a highly unusual situation. I liked this aspect a lot, but given the silence of so many characters, who eventually share what they know, it does not feel entirely fair. The resolution is propelled by an unorthodox sense of morality and puts pain to the idea that all classic crime novels provide impossibly neat happy-ever-after conclusions.
At the start of this review I mentioned Sprigg’s ambitions. This story reveals he had a lot to offer in terms of plot creativity and originality, but it is perhaps his execution of these ideas which needed some improvement. In particular I think he needed to reconsider how he concealed the truth from the reader. I am not sure whether to call this book a marmite read or not, but I will say it certainly provokes a reaction from the reader – though this reaction may vary!