Like many a classic crime fan I have been waiting to get my mitts on a copy of this book, which did not require an extensive loan or the need to rob a bank. Peter Shaffer published this book under a penname, which joined his first name with that of his twin brother, Anthony. According to Martin Edward’s helpful introduction and Elinor Shaffer’s preface, the pair worked on three books, yet there was no true collaboration between them until the second book, How Doth the Little Crocodile (1952). It seems with this first book Shaffer did all the writing, with Anthony being more one for ‘over-the-top plot ideas.’ With the second book it is suggested by Anthony himself that he worked on the plot and wrote alternate chapters with Peter.
Today’s read is set in the seaside town of Amnestie and our crime takes place at the Charter hotel; which has some slight notoriety due to the couples who choose to weekend there and end up in the Sunday newspapers. Our private detective, Mr Verity, has a villa here also, yet when he goes to the sea for a swim, he notices something odd: A man is leaving one bedroom via the window and effecting an entrance into another. Is it mere holiday shenanigans? Naturally Verity goes to investigate, and it is not long before the same man Verity saw, comes running down the stairs shouting there’s been a murder.
The victim is Mr Maxwell, who we quickly learn was a vicious blackmailer – so the suspect list is certainly not underweight. Yet this is a far from being a straightforward case. By the time Verity and the others make it to Maxwell’s room, his bedroom door has been locked from the inside and when they break in, his window has also been locked from the inside and to top it all off there is a waitress loosely bound in the wardrobe, which was also locked, and the story she tells does little to convince the police of her innocence. Add to this the multiple shots, the missing pass key and the unaccounted-for blood stain in the lobby and you have a first-rate baffling puzzle to solve. But will Verity be able to figure it all out?
Martin describes Mr Verity as a ‘jokey version of the Great Detective’ and he goes onto quote this passage from the story in which Verity is said to be:
‘very much disliked. It was partly because he was so often right. And partly… because he had an inexcusable manner of making himself indispensable in a case, and finally of solving it between tea and supper, with a mixed display of condescension and incivility.’
In part, I was reminded of how Miss Marple is first described in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Characters such as Griselda say she is ‘the worst cat in the village,’ who ‘always knows every single thing that happens – draws the worst inferences from it’ and that she is the ‘kind of old cat’ who ‘is always right.’ It can be easy to forget the more ambiguous impressions other villagers have of Miss Marple in this debut novel, and it is fair to say that Verity’s sleuthing talents are well-known locally, but that they too do not automatically bring him accolade or friendship.
This is probably contributed to by his maverick behaviour, which can at times make him appear rude. Not that this is detrimental to the reader’s enjoyment of watching him at work, as we get great lines such as: ‘Oh… and do release Mr Cunningham. It’s far too late for him to conceal anything now – except perhaps a pass-key, and some of his more controllable reactions.’ Unsurprisingly the local police are not always happy with what he is saying, though on the whole Verity gets on well with Inspector Jackson. It is interesting that Shaffer brings in a third sleuthing party, a Detective Inspector Rambler from Scotland Yard, who is friends with Verity and is on holiday. Yet the inclusion of Rambler does add to Verity’s grumpy old man pose, as now we have two of them! Though whilst they might argue with one another about which solution is the correct one, it never leads to permanent discord.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of the comic crime novel, and this was one of the reasons I wished to try this book. Shaffer is adept at writing humorously and the reader will encounter this from the first page. The opening line is: ‘The little town of Amnestie had not known a death so bloody since the fifteenth century’ and Shaffer then goes on to explain the origins of the town’s name:
‘…it had borne its name since the Wars of the Roses, when there appear to have been two not very pitched battles on the beach. In the first the Lancastrians drove the Yorkists from the sand-dunes back to the town; in the second the Yorkists drove the Lancastrians from the sand-dunes into the sea. After each engagement there was a general amnesty for a population which, out of a natural desire to maintain its property, had adopted a rather confused neutrality and aided both sides indiscriminately.’
Normally I am not hugely interested in these more explanatory parts of stories, but in Shaffer’s hands this becomes an entertaining part of the narrative and importantly he manages to achieve this in a matter of sentences. It also sets up the light-hearted tone of the book and it is to Shaffer’s credit that he is able to balance the comic atmosphere with the bloody crime that has occurred.
The comedy of the piece often operates through the characters, with one of the highlights being Mr Tudor, who thinks he is the rightful king of England, Richard IV. Naturally some of the humour comes from Verity and I found this description of him intriguing:
‘Mr Verity had travelled far in his sixty-six years of life, mostly in Classical lands: and where Mr Verity travelled, he rummaged. In fact, he admitted to having more archaeological thefts to his credit than the governing body of any museum in Europe. Marbles were a specialty of his; burial runs a side-line.’
It perfectly encapsulates Shaffer’s talent for making asides, and it also shows the less than squeaky clean persona of Verity, making him an interesting and distinctive sleuth.
Verity makes short work of the suspects and their secrets – that is not where the mystification lies. The puzzle is trying to figure out who was involved, who did what part of the events that happened, whilst making sure it all tallies with the physical clues at the crime scene. Bob Adey wrote that this tale is ‘the best postwar locked-room mystery… [with] a brilliant new solution.’ Whilst I have not read enough locked room mysteries to comment on the first part of that statement, I can agree with Adey on the brilliantness of the solution. It is certainly not one I have come across before and it also answers perfectly the growing tension in the book between justice needing to be assuaged and the feeling that whoever killed Maxwell was justified in doing so.
Martin sums it up well when he says this story is ‘straightforward, unashamed fun’ and I would definitely recommend giving it a go.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title.