Conjuror’s Coffin (1954) by Guy Cullingford

I really enjoyed my first experience of Cullingford’s work this year, which was Post Mortem (1953). So I had high hopes for today’s read. The story is set mostly at a Soho hotel called the Bellevue and takes place in the weeks running up to and just after the Coronation. Jess Milk, a middle-aged woman who has come to London to work after her ill parents died, has recently become the receptionist there. Suffice to say she is not the sort of woman you would expect to find in a run-down hotel like that. The same cannot be said for Gene and Stella Gorman, who are on and off regulars. Gene is a conjurer and performs an act with his wife and an assistant also staying with them, called Gay Shelley.

This trio become central to the plot. There is the assistant who loves her employer, there is the wife who has no interest in parting with her savings and then we have the conjurer, a weary man who you would be surprised could be a showman, and whom seems to have little preference for either woman. The tension within their group ebbs and flows as the book progresses, words are hurled, as well as punches, and the reader is left wondering when will the body appear. Yet, Cullingford does not follow such a predictable path. Instead we begin with baffling disappearances; baffling as to how they were achieved and baffling as to why they were done in the first place.

Overall Thoughts

I hope I’m not suffering from another bout of Readers’ Grinch, but I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped I would, nor as much as I thought I should. It took some time to figure out why I was less grabbed by this novel. After all, looking back on the plot it does contain a cleverly constructed, though perhaps ambiguous solution to the puzzle posed. I wouldn’t say this book is un-clued, but it is not the type of narrative in which clues are consistently stitched in. Instead it is more a case of focusing on specific scenes and considering the possible misdirection that could be taking place. Regarding the trio of victims and suspects, I think the reader will consider some combinations for them and the role(s) they had in the mystery. Though given the small cast of characters I do not think it unlikely that the reader will anticipate the “twist,” as there is a limit to what surprises could be created within the set of circumstances Cullingford devises. However, I think Cullingford uses the “twist” in question well and does more with it than you might expect.

The setting of the book was probably a partial reason for why I enjoyed the book less. It just wasn’t one which engaged me fully. This had the knock-on effect that I felt the slow pacing more keenly, as very little happens for the first 50% of the story. Moreover, this is not the sort of mystery where you can expect to be given leads to follow up, and when it comes to the text’s investigators, the police don’t appear until quite late in the book and have a minimal presence. There is not really much in the way of amateur sleuthing either, as Jess merely hears and notices a few things during her normal duties. During the denouement you can see how Cullingford has sneakily used Jess Milk as a protagonist and as our eyes on the case, but I couldn’t get hugely enthusiastic about her as a character. Although it was nice to see a writer deploying an older protagonist, rather than a 20-something heroine in jeopardy. The romance subplot is also sweetly done.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this book, for me, was its depiction of the Coronation day. Cullingford provides an interesting snapshot of that moment in history, recording the various preparations for the day, (with people camping out on the pavement all night), people’s expectations and the attitudes of the crowds on the day, eager to see the Queen, despite the rain.

After finishing the book, I looked at other reviews online and as evidenced by the reviews linked below, others have enjoyed this book more than me. So do check them out. I still have Framed for Hanging (1959) and Bother at the Barbican (1991), so hopefully I will have better luck with them.

Rating: 3.75/5

See also: The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Crime Novel, John at Pretty Sinister and Moira at Clothes in Books have also reviewed this title here.

7 comments

  1. I did a double take when I saw this in your sidebar a few days ago as your current read, because I was reading it too! Funny coincidence. I liked it more than you did, but then I am always a sucker for that kind of setting, I absolutely loved the Coronation day strand, and the general 50s Soho atmosphere, and was charmed by the varied characters. Did you think Jessie was annoyingly foolish 😉?

    Liked by 1 person

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