Don’t Monkey With Murder (1942) by Elizabeth Ferrars

This is one of the books which has been on my TBR pile for a while now, partially for, I guess, the rather superficial reason that I unintentionally bought myself a large print edition of the title. Large print editions are not hugely appealing to me, as it always feels like I am reading the book with a magnifying glass. I also think I lose a sense of how far through the book I am. It is a little disconcerting to find yourself only in chapter 6 when you get to the 200-page mark.

However, let’s get down to business with murder in the Downs, in the village of East Leat to be precise. A private detective narrates our tale, called Toby Dyke, who has a very able assistant George. They have been drawn to the area by a letter from a visiting psychobiologist, Paul Virag. The letter is confusingly vague, and Toby goes into the case believing he is investigating why Paul’s daughter, Irma, keeps getting kidnapped, yet is able to keep escaping back home. However, when Toby meets Paul’s daughter, who in fact is named Marti, he and the reader realise that the letter was actually referring to Paul’s two chimpanzees, Irma and Leofric. Paul has come from Tobago to meet with his potential new benefactress, Rosa Miall, whose money would enable him to keep his research station running. She agreed to pay him only if she could have two chimpanzees to keep herself – a condition which baffles Toby and George for quite some time. Why could she possibly want them? And why did she so suddenly rush off on business, the day after Paul arrived?

When Toby and his friend eventually get to Miall’s home it is reported that the chimpanzees have been stolen once more, yet the situation soon changes when they all get inside and find Irma dead on the floor, stabbed in the heart. Who would do such a thing? And why? As Toby’s investigation progresses more potential motives appear, but can he pick the right one, and the right suspect for that matter?

Overall Thoughts

Like Toby I was somewhat at sea in the first few pages of the book, but thankfully Ferrars straightens things out, so both reader and detective know what on earth is going on. Interestingly it felt far more normal for the problem to involve stolen chimpanzees, rather than a repeatedly kidnapped daughter. This latter possibility seemed much more out of place with the surroundings, almost clashing with them. Yet chimpanzees in the Downs, not a problem…

This might just be me of course…

Miall may not be present, but her presence is still felt in her absence. She is one of those rich spinsters who litter classic crime fiction, possessing the two equally strong qualities of being very rich and very interfering; being a busybody in the lives of her secretary and adopted daughter, as well as for the whole village. She is even said to have gone as far as demanding a local bus service simply in order to prevent inbreeding in the village. As you do…

Animals crops up a lot in crime fiction and over the passing years the way they are depicted in such works has developed. Yet it is rare to see an animal as the primary victim and I was intrigued to see the different reactions towards Irma’s death in this story. There are initial questions of whether it counted as murder and even if the police should be called in. Characters such as Paul anticipate police ridicule and disinterest, yet Toby is surprisingly sensitive and valuing of the animal life lost. The victim being an animal does not limit the possible motives for the crime and Toby has to consider the village as a whole in some kind of conspiracy as well as looking at those closer to home.

I’m not sure if Toby and George are series characters but Ferrars does not give any backstory to the pair. We have no idea what sort of detecting business they are operating, though we know they are low in funds. This does not impact the plot too much, but it would have been nice to have had some hints. These two are something of an inversion of the Great detective and his blundering sidekick. Of the two, George is by far the better sleuth. He notices things more, anticipates problems sooner and his thinking falls down fewer wrong paths. Toby is not hopeless, but you do wonder why George prefers to take a subordinate role.

The reader has both psychological and physical clues to contend with. The suspect relationships are quite entangled, and Toby even has to consider the psychology of the two chimps, as their keeper points out an action which was not in character for them. Looking back at the clues I think the psychological ones are almost needed to figure out the physical ones. This book put me in mind of Evil Under the Sun, as it reminded me of the importance of viewing a case the right way up, as well as to be wary of suspects who are too easily caught out in hiding a secret. Though perhaps when it comes to Ferrars’ narrative I was not 100% convinced by some of the relationship dynamics going on.

I did not work out the solution, but I certainly was thinking about one key element of it before the detectives were.  On the whole I would say this is a clever mystery by Ferrars with a sneaky puzzle to it, involving a very significant but very subtle red herring. I definitely think I will be back to try more of her work at some point.

Rating: 4.25/5

P. S. Early in the story Toby describes a fellow train passenger; a description I found rather amusing: ‘One, probably a farmer’s wife, laden with parcels and with the slightly riotous look on her face that can only be engendered by tea and cream-cakes…’ Mentally trying to picture this one and struggling. How does eating cream cakes give one a slightly riotous look? Have I been eating them incorrectly, and thus sidestepped this facial expression consequence? Feel free to conduct some experiments at home and share your findings…

8 comments

  1. Perhaps the farmer’s wife had a sugar rush and got a bit hyper like small children do at parties! I like Elizabeth Ferrars – she could be very inventive and this certainly is an original idea.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It is ages since I read them! But I do remember liking the premise of The Pretty Pink Shroud: a bag of clothes donated to a thrift store (like today’s charity shops, I assume) contains a blood-stained and bullet-riddled dress. Can’t remember if the rest of it lived up to that.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ferrars had a number of series sleuths and also seems to have frequently written non-series titles. As to this detecting duo I wonder if there is an earlier book which establishes them a bit more as a team.

      Like

  2. It seems like animals feature alot in Ferrars’s novel titles… Glad you enjoyed this one – the one Ferrars title I purchased off the back of your recommendation got lost in the mail during the peak of the COVID season. Oh well.

    Would you say this has the strongest puzzle of all the Ferrars titles you’ve read? Thinking if I should attempt to purchase another of her works…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm good question. Taking a quick look at my other reviews I think this book does have the strongest puzzle, though Enough to Kill a Horse also has an interesting mystery to solve. As a general rule of thumb I would suggest trying one of her earlier books, as they seem to have the greater puzzle aspect. The later books tend not to.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.