Pat Flower is an author I have come across twice in the past 12 months. The first time was in John Curran’s excellent book The Hooded Gunman (2019) and the second time was in Stephen Knight’s Australian Crime Fiction: A 200-Year History (2018), which I read earlier this year.
‘Shortly after joining an exclusive house party, William, a successful writer and Casanova, is found dead. Inspector Swinton, called in to investigate, discovers he has been murdered – not once, but three times, and more puzzling still, that none of the attempts have killed him. Only after the appearance of a second corpse does Swinton solve the mystery and the story reach its startling climax.’
This was Flower’s second mystery novel, yet even at this early stage in her writing career, she seems to have known how to hook her readers from the get-go. On the very first page our victim, William Flecker, announces to the other guests at a weekend house party, that someone is going to kill him; something he discovered when he found a dropped to-do list. Between ‘laundry – complain’ and ‘lunch Thursday,’ there is the small job of ‘get rid of William.’ The riddle of what this item really means is soon solved for the reader, producing a pleasing bathetic tone. Yet this inconsequential incident has got someone else thinking…
Other notes in the post follow and everything comes to a showdown when months later all the same guests return to Cynthia and Steve French’s country home, Thornton, for William’s farewell party. We already know how everyone has reacted to the news that William’s easy success is continuing with a film deal in England, but what will happen when they hear it is all off? Naturally there are many potential motives for murdering William. He was having an on/off affair with his host’s wife and he has just ditched his latest amorous conquest. His first publisher is still bitter over the way he left his company and William has also been spreading rumours to prevent a struggling interior decorating husband and wife team from getting work. And why do the later to-do lists include, ‘remember Virginia’? What else has William been up to?
So far none of this will seem particularly unusual or out of the ordinary. It all sounds fairly run-of-the-mill, yet this is far from the case when we get to William’s death. Just what did actually kill him? This aspect of the case proves to be the trickiest puzzle, as whilst the autopsy is on going throughout the story, (with elliptic updates provided over the telephone), Detective Inspector Swinton has to figure out who committed each attempt. The answer to this puzzle is only revealed pages from the end, and is kept well-hidden, though I do not think it inconceivable that a reader could not anticipate it.
Added to this perplexing situation there is post-death interference with the crime scene, with the body being moved elsewhere. In some ways this is a book of reactions, as you watch the closed set of suspects as a new revelation is unfurled upon them. Did they expect it? Or are they baffled by it? If so, why are they baffled? Were they expecting something different?
Flower creates a very engaging weekend party cast of characters, though I don’t think I would want any of them as my friends! Even the nicer ones do not seem to have a knack for saying the right thing or of being particularly supportive. They’re not all the indolent rich; as some of them lack private means to fund their creative endeavours. Most of the characters are married and it is interesting to see the tensions beneath the surface of these relationships and to then compare how they change once William is dead. Have they been resolved or heightened? The marriage of Cynthia and Steve is perhaps the one most affected by the death. At the start of the book we know that Cynthia ‘married the flat and the house and Stephen, and of the three she loved only the house.’ Yet William’s demise seems to help her see her husband in a new light.
Detective Inspector Swinton is an enjoyable sleuthing lead to follow and our first encounter of him is within a domestic context, going to see a film with his family:
‘But Mary had her heart set on seeing William Holden – there seemed to be some bond between his wife and this fellow. His film was showing at their local red brick and chromium palace, together with a murder mystery that bored Swinton almost to tears. Crime as entertainment was lost upon him, and private eyes solving insoluble riddles in brief moments between hard drinking and love-making he found quite ludicrous.’
Swinton is presented as quite a down to earth sort of man, who much prefers contemplating his cases with a pie than a souffle. Though I wonder whether the name of his cat, Wimsey, is intended as a literary allusion.
Given the type of suspects Swinton is dealing with, it is not surprising that they are largely uncooperative. Yet he is good at knowing when he is being lied to and thankfully Flower finds ways of ensuring that Swinton hears the information he needs to figure out what has occurred. Interestingly the suspects whilst starting out as uncommunicative, soon begin to act like pans of water and their secrets and feelings boil over as the story unfolds. No one’s self-image or reputation is left unmarked by the events of that weekend.
The ending is perhaps a little rushed, but I think Flower achieves a very dramatic finale and overall I felt this was a promising first experience of her work and I look forward to trying more by her.