Today’s read is possibly one of the hardest I have ever had to review, and I’ve reviewed a story by Harry Stephen Keeler! It is not that the book is awful. It is not that the plot is too complex. It’s actually quite simple, but the key reason why anyone would want to read it, is potentially a spoiler. I am in something of a quandary. The synopsis for the dustjacket seems to have had similar difficulties, though kudos to them for managing to sort of hint at the thing in question, without spelling it out:
‘Who killed Gilbert Worth? The official verdict was that he committed suicide, but those who knew him best thought that he was not the type to take his own life – and at least one person is highly dissatisfied with the verdict.
Many things call for explanation: the position of the fatal gun, a half-written letter, a missing manuscript… And two ‘accidents’ before Worth’s death had convinced the victim that someone was trying to kill him.
Worth’s wife, daughter, two sons and hard-boiled mistress all had motives and opportunity. His lawyer and his publisher have their own ideas; his next-door-neighbour thinks he knows the truth; even the detestable gardener has a clue to it. But the many dramatic situations arising from Worth’s sudden death are closely watched by one occupant of the house in particular – someone who has the very best reason for wanting to identify the killer.’
The problem with it is though, is that it makes the plot sound far more conventional than it is. This is not a book you are going to read for its intense police investigation, or it’s determined amateur sleuth. You’re not going to be reading it for the intricate timetable of alibis or the series of physical clues. Yet that is what this synopsis pushes because they’re trying to avoid talking about the “thing,” despite that being the story’s selling point.
Before buying this book I had already been recommended this title because of the “thing” and knowing it going in certainly did not spoil my enjoyment. I should also point out that the “thing” is revealed about 25 pages into the narrative. Equally if you look at the cover artwork long enough you might cotton on to what the “thing” is.
If you’re terribly strict about not having your surprises spoilt then I advise reading no further. But if you’re a devil-may-care kind of reader or have just figured out the “thing” from the cover read on…
Right after all the prevaricating I am now going to reveal the “thing,” so if you have wandered into this paragraph accidently and don’t want to know, all I can say is “Retreat, retreat!!”
After all that build up I hope it is not anti-climactic, but the person who is most interested in solving who killed Gilbert Worth, is Gilbert Worth!! Gilbert is an author and prior to his death he began to write about his growing suspicion that someone in his household is trying to kill him. Yet the moment of his death is not the end of him, though it does take his ghost-self a few pages to realise that the dead body in front of him was once him. Now a ghost as narrator/avenging sleuth may seem like a tacky or hackneyed concept, but in my opinion Cullingford executes it with a great deal of skill. He does not descend into long paragraphs on why this situation may or may not be realistic, nor does he get entangled in long scientific explanations. I think the reader buys into it, (as a narrative experience), because Cullingford quite simply anchors his premise in Gilbert’s first-hand observations and comments about the new state he has found himself in. I think he portrayed Gilbert’s reaction to his own murder well, with its understated horror written with an aggrieved tone. Yet he also finds something darkly humorous about it too, and he is not shy about examining quite literally his own corpse. It is a wonderfully unusual point of view to examine a crime from, a perspective we are invariably not afforded.
Cullingford makes his victim unlikeable but not unredeemable or wholly repellent. I would say Gilbert is at his worse whilst he is still living, as you quickly see why his family members might want to bump him off. For instance, when he talks about his grown-up sons, Robert and Julian, he writes that:
‘I have never felt the slightest shade of affection for either of my boys since they turned three years of age. I have felt a certain amount of pride in their achievements at school as they reflected on my parental status, and all along I have been interested in them psychologically.’
And his description of his daughter is scathing to say the least:
‘As for my daughter Juliet, I can imagine that had she been anything but the dim echo of her mother, I might have cared for her more. But I have seen it done once already, only better. Who cares for a second performance by an inferior company?’
You start to wonder why he had not been killed sooner…
Yet to sustain reader engagement this “monster” image has to soften a bit, or at least be shown in comparison to other less agreeable characters. Cullingford uses both tools as the narrative progresses. Whilst listening in on his household’s conversations he naturally learns some hard truths about himself, as well as discovering new aspects of his family. He was convinced he had them pegged, but they certainly prove him wrong. After a while he does begin to acknowledge error on his part, though this is a gradual process which varies in degrees depending on who the remorse is directed at. However, Cullingford on the whole prevents the story from becoming too cloying or sentimental. The premise may borrow a little from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and the figure of scrooge, but the tone and aim of the book diverges from its predecessor.
His children, also, balance out his unpleasantness, and in some cases his estimations of them prove correct in part. For example, of his son Julian he says he is:
‘presumably a man in everything except in being able to maintain himself. His education has been long and expensive, and one would imagine to some purpose, but no one can think what the purpose is, least of all Julian himself […] The only thing that would settle Julian’s career for him would be a full-scale war, and that solution seems a little harsh on the rest of us.’
Julian’s lazy approach to life and his desire to sponge off his mother seem to corroborate this view.
Gilbert’s greatest discomfort at finding himself a ghost is located in the earlier parts of the book, and with an unfavourable opinion of him at that point, I think the reader is not overly saddened by Gilbert’s distress. Cullingford pitches it well when he conveys this distress in a peeved tone, as that brings a darkly comic note to the situation. A key theme of his initial disgruntlement revolves around his newly gained lack of control over events, which is exacerbated by the police treating his death as an open and shut suicide case. There is also an amusing moment when one of his neighbours decides he needs some of Gilbert’s expensive whisky, leading Gilbert to reflect that:
‘…it was abundantly clear to me that if anyone deserved a whisky it was the late Gilbert Worth. Where I was going to put it, I didn’t know, but so far as feeling was concerned, I had exactly the same imperative need for a drink after a trying experience as I had when I was alive.’
Returning to an idea I mooted at the start of this review, I do not think this is a story to be treated as a detective novel. In my opinion it is probably more accurate to describe it as a crime novel, though this is one of those narratives which is hard to pigeonhole. Gilbert’s initial desire to discover his killer never goes away, but it is not always front and centre. This is something he almost acknowledges himself when he says finding out alibis would prove useless, and he adds that ‘I was only interested in the ramifications of human nature.’ This put me in mind of Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), yet unlike in that earlier text, I think the conversations his household have after his death are less illuminating. They reveal character certainly, but not necessarily culpability. The puzzle aspect is therefore lessened for me. When their conversations do yield significant information it somewhat congregates in one section near the denouement. After all Gilbert writes that:
‘So I was like a detective in an indifferent mystery. I had just to hang about, fingering a clue here and there, until the case resolved itself of its own accord.’
Nevertheless, the reader is very likely to pinpoint the right person.
Yet that is not the absolute end of the book…
Here I will be more circumspect, but for this type of book to work well it needed to do something destabilising or dramatic during the ending, and on the whole I think Cullingford manages this. It put me in mind of another book published in the same year, but I’m afraid naming it might spoil things.
All in all, I rather enjoyed this book. I am fond of an unusual premise and I think it has been largely well-achieved. The comic undertones suit the narrative also. I would have reservations recommending it those who prefer a traditional detective story, as I feel their expectations might not be met. Those seeking something a little more unconventional though will get on with it well.