Death of His Uncle (1939) by C. H. B. Kitchin

My first encounter with Kitchin’s work was in my first year of blogging, 2015, with the title Crime at Christmas (1934). My memories are somewhat foggy, but I think I found it to be a middle of the road read. I was not put off completely from trying something by Kitchin again, but I wasn’t rushing out to get more either. Hence the reason it has taken me 5 years to get around to giving him another go.

My edition is the Hogarth Crime one, which has an introduction by H. R. F. Keating, who in keeping with his introduction for the Palmer novel, Exit Laughing (1954), spends most of the introduction explaining why this is a weak book, before trying to make a hurried defence for it, at the end. The strong leaning towards criticising the books baffles me a little, as I can’t see it putting a reader in the best possible frame of mind for enjoying the book. After all, how excited would you be to read a book having been told this:

‘The plot of the present work has been criticised as insufficient, and, indeed, if it is judged by the standards of an Agatha Christie it is slight. Most readers, I hazard, will, like Julian Symons in his magisterial survey Bloody Murder, be ‘likely to discover the truth before his stockbroker narrator.’

To this Keating applies to the book this epitaph: ‘amateurish crime fiction.’

So with my enthusiasm a little dampened I plunged into the book – but how accurate were Keating’s portents of doom?

In keeping with titles such as Robin Forsythe’s Missing or Murdered (1929), Kitchin’s book commences with a disappearance, namely of Dick Findley’s uncle Hamilton. Findley is an old rival of Malcolm Warren’s, the former besting Malcolm time and time again at university. Malcolm is our amateur sleuth, who by day is a stockbroker, yet has encountered violent death twice before in Death of my Aunt (1930) and Crime at Christmas. Despite not hugely liking Dick, Malcolm is curious as to where Hamilton Findley may have gone, and their investigation commences by attempting to retrace his footsteps.

Hamilton had planned to go away to Cornwall for a long weekend, as his housekeeper was attending a wedding at the same time. His choice of destination causes some comment as it goes against the grain of his penny-pinching ways. Malcolm’s inquiries soon meet with quick success and a solution almost seems in sight, but is it the right one?

Overall Thoughts

I must say Kitchin certainly provides his novel with an unconventional opening line:

‘Had it not been for my inability to mash potatoes on Thursday, June 10th, I think it quite possible that I might never have embarked on this third case of mine.’

I did wonder if he was doing a tongue in cheek take on HIBK novels, which were popular at the time, creating quite a bathetic tone with his mash potatoes. Though I was wondering how you can go so badly wrong with mashed potatoes. From this point the opening pages present quite a clear picture of our amateur sleuth, who is somewhat inept, though well-heeled. Moreover, the way he introduces us to Dick Findley says rather more about him than Dick, as Malcolm seems to warm to him much more once Dick’s father dies and leaves him penniless; a situation which forces him out of his comfortable university lodgings and into the family business. I think this side of Malcolm makes him a difficult character to fully like. Though it seems Kitchin gave his amateur sleuth a number of qualities he possessed himself, including being a stockbroker, piano player, as well as a player of bridge.

Malcolm is quite a self-conscious amateur sleuth, as during the earlier stages of his investigation there is a palpable sense of him wanting to live up to the expectations and reputation bestowed upon by others and invariably he considers how his own behaviour and feelings do not meet the requirements of a typical detective.

Although in fairness his ideas of detectives are based on fictional ones and detective novels themselves are brought up by him in the story. In particular there is one extended passage in which talks about why he likes them:

‘Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories- the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier – that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specially to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of ours age.’

His concluding remarks are interestingly quite apt for current times, in which detective stories are being turned to much more readily for study.

I steered clear of using the blurb on the back of my edition, as it gives too much away in terms of the general narrative direction. Though in fairness I would be surprised if any reader had not figured out the correct solution after the first 60 or so pages. Symons’ and Keating’s predictions were certainly accurate in this respect. The mystery is too basic and so lacking in characters that there are simply no other possibilities or suspects other than the one the reader will alight on. There are also other weak narrative strategies used such as pushing the killer off the stage too soon. Their absence somewhat screams their guilt. The ending is similarly rather underwhelming, with a criminal collapse that seems hugely out of character and is unsympathetically described by Malcolm. This is combined with a very rushed explanation and Malcolm’s leaps in deduction do not come across well on the page.

It is not that the mystery is un-clued, as Kitchin does provide some along the lines found in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (1935), but I don’t think they’re really necessary for the reader, who will probably use other narrative indicators. Furthermore, after the first 60-70 pages the pacing of the book drops considerably, as does the amount of activity in the plot, and any actions Malcolm does take are fairly ponderous and don’t hugely add much more information. The pace picks up again for the ending, but all that this acceleration does is give the piece a feeling of being forced or false.

So unfortunately this was not such a great read, which was disappointing as I felt it started rather well. But at least I know now he is one less GAD writer to worry about tracking down.

Rating: 3.5/5

9 comments

  1. Alas, you have not read his best book, Death of My Aunt, which was also his first. It’s a 5/5 for me. Has Malcom’s aunt been poisoned by her aphrodisiac? What about her muscle bound gigolo? 1929.
    It’s a delight, this one is … just a sequel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read three by him and thought them slight. So why did I read them, and why do I remember him fondly? The feeling they gave me was of being in the company of a likeable mind which is entertaining me with gentle humour and a sophisticated writing style. He leads me through his story pleasantly and has ways of seeing things and people that give me a satisfaction missing with many writers. The opposite sort of writer to master technicians like Carr and Christie. Learning which of the dozens of characters killed Linnet in ‘Death on the Nile’ isn’t the main reason for reading that novel. I wonder if Richard Hull’s hilarious ‘Murder of My Aunt’ 1939 drew on Kitchin.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is well put and captures my reaction well. He’s an example of how a mainstream novelist can dabble in GAD, as so many of them did back then, with satisfactory results. For an example of how not to do it read C P Snow.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wonder if Richard Hull’s hilarious ‘Murder of My Aunt’ 1939 drew on Kitchin.

        A few years ago, I read Death of My Aunt and Murder of My Aunt back-to-back and there’s something in Hull’s novel that can be construed as a sly reference to Kitchin’s Death of My Aunt. During the story, Edward begins to research poisons and comes across an article dealing with a poison not often used in detective stories, oxalic acid crystals, which Kitchin used in Death of My Aunt. Edward makes a comment to himself about the writer of the article and wonders if he had an aunt. So maybe.

        Like

        • “something in Hull’s novel that can be construed as a sly reference to Kitchin’s ‘Death of My Aunt’

          Or maybe he was thinking of Aunt Agatha.

          Like

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