My first read of the year was influenced by Tomcat’s recommendation to bump this title up my TBR pile.
Ina Kell has optimistically moved to Manhattan with $60 in her pocket, looking for a more exciting life and despite having no training, is confident there is an opportunity for her there. She is the type of sensible soul who spouts this kind of sentiment:
“Just let things happen to me!” Ina prayed to her own special deity. “Anything at all as long as it’s different and exciting and soon!”
Early one morning she hears a fight going on in the apartment across the hall and peeping at her front door she sees a man come out. Upon investigating the other flat she finds its’ owner bludgeoned on the floor. Yet of course her primary interest is concerned with the fame she might obtain through the case.
But 8 months down the line, the narrative switches to Inspector Oscar Piper who greets his old friend and flame Hildegarde Withers. She is resigned to retirement and is planning on moving permanently to California. To reignite her spark, Oscar reveals a problem. He and his colleagues had arrested Winston H Gault for the murder of Tony Fagan, our bludgeoned radio and TV comic. Fagan had made one too many below the belt jokes about Gault on his TV show, which was being sponsored by Gault’s frozen food company. The evidence all points towards him having done the deed, but just before his trial is about to commence, a postponement has been requested. The prosecution’s surprise witness a.k.a. Ina, has disappeared. Without her testimony their case is liable to be thrown out of court. Why did Ina leave her job and lodgings? Where has she gone to? Are the defence in anyway involved in her absconding?
I would say this is one of Palmer’s most unusually structured novels. Withers is not brought in at the beginning of the murder case, but once the trial is nearly about to commence. What is more she is not being asked to solve whodunit, but to help find a key witness who will ensure the detained suspect will be convicted. Although naturally, like Withers, the reader will be puzzling over whether the right person has been arrested. You can usually predict which way the plot will land regarding this last query, but in this narrative it is very much up for grabs, as the tables are turned a lot and there are many reversal of events.
Most of the book takes place in Tijuana in Mexico and is focused on Withers’ repeated attempts to locate Ina and then hold on to her until the police arrive. This repeated series of cat and mouse exploits was dragged out for too long in my opinion and some of the comic shenanigans, (involving Withers’ apricot poodle, Tallyrand predominantly,) could have been cut back and replaced with some more conventional sleuthing. There is a lot of we have you, oh no we don’t and ah we know where you are when we want you, ah no we don’t anymore.
Comic escapades are a key component of the Withers mysteries, and I am rather fond of comic crime novels, but one of the reasons I think this element needed to be reduced on this occasion, was in order to frame the ending more effectively. Now that denouement was one heck of a finale – yet I don’t feel it gets the space and the run up it fully deserved. Moreover, the solution is something of a departure in tone and complexity for Palmer, if my memory serves me correctly, and if you think about it long enough this type of solution doesn’t quite gel with the humorous interludes found in the middle of the book. But playing devil’s advocate maybe perhaps the middle of the narrative is a form of red herring. This would be in keeping with other earlier red herrings that the book throws our way, as well as the way Palmer utilises stock characters in a deceptive manner.
Oscar Piper says that Withers is ‘no detective, simply a catalytic agent,’ and in this story this feels quite justified as she seems to rely less on traditional detecting and instead manages to stir up a hornet’s nest and in the ensuing chaos is able to fathom the solution. Again I wonder if this was the best approach to complement the solution.
Looking back at my review I feel like I have been something of a grumpy Gus or a reading Grinch and I am in something of a quandary with this title. It has a lot of enjoyable elements: an unusual entry point into the mystery, a strong sleuthing pair who comically spar like an old married couple and there are some hilarious scenes, such as the one at the greyhound racing track. The solution as I have said has something of a wow factor. Yet, there is still that ‘but’. I just have this nagging feeling that the book is not as effective as it could have been, and it is a feeling which seems to crystallise at the end of the story.
Oh well I am sure Tomcat will comment and point out how this is all wrong!