January is usually the month when I try to read some of the books which have been on my TBR pile the longest and today’s read is one of those. Since last Christmas I have been working my way through the Moonstone Press’s reprints by this author and The Perfect Alibi (1934) is the last one. I have to admit my experience of Sprigg’s amateur sleuthing journalist, Charles Venables, has been mixed. His tendency to hold all the cards up his sleeve has sometimes annoyed me, amongst other things. Consequently, I had been dragging my heels about reading this title, even though I had been told by more than one blogging friend that it is Sprigg’s best book.
The book begins with a fire on the edge of sleepy English village. The garage adjoining the Turrets is ablaze and when the fire is finally put out a body is discovered. It is quickly identified as the homeowner, Antony Mullins, a wealthy manufacturer of weapons and armaments. The garage was locked and there is no sign of a key and a post-mortem reveals a bullet inside his skull, yet no revolver to hand. The suspect list is healthy, as are the alibis and for the local police, Scotland Yard and even Charles himself, the case frequently reaches a point of deadlock. Local residents help and hinder the case in equal measure, so it is to be wondered whether the mystery will ever be solved.
So was I wrong to hold off from reading this book?
The answer is a definite yes! This is categorically the best book by Sprigg that I have read, and yes, I do have to confess that Charles’ large absence from the page contributed to this significantly. He appears at the start of the book, working in the area on another case, and gives the police investigation a slight nudge and then we don’t see him until much later. Even then he only stays for a short period, before travelling abroad. His final appearance occurs at the end of the book. If this had been a book featuring a sleuth I really enjoy like Miss Marple or Jane Dagobert I would have been dischuffed, as there’s nothing worse than your favoured detective not being around. Yet for me not having Charles littering up the narrative, meant I could enjoy the unfolding of the mystery and the police/amateur investigation so much more. I did not feel like there was loads of information being withheld from me and instead it seemed like I was in the same position as the investigating characters.
The initial crime setup is superb. The reader certainly has a case they can get their teeth into. The victim drastically changed their will 6 months previously, with particular passages in the will casting his family in an unflattering light. We have the now widowed wife orbited by various young men, a young nephew charged with going abroad under assumed names, and a scientific research group in line for a hefty inheritance. Much work is done to investigate the various alibis, yet each time a piece of evidence is uncovered, it temporarily sends the reader and sleuths haring after another solution, only to terminate at a dead end.
Not only does this book have an A1 plot and mystery, but the characters are also wonderfully depicted. Sandy Delfinage was one of my favourite characters and she is a local resident who periodically in the book tries her hand at detective work. The novel is peppered with varying intensity levels of comedy, which is another aspect of the book I liked, and Sandy, more often than not, manages to work her way into such moments in the narrative. Sometimes these occasions are more understated such as when we are told that:
‘Miss Delfinage called on Mrs Mullins to offer her condolence and help. Whether there was any human curiosity prompting her visit it would be rude to inquire. Also unnecessary.’
Then there is Police Constable Sadler’s concern over Sandy’s plans to some investigating of her own:
“Nonsense […] Do you think I have no tact?”
“I’ve never said that. But you conceal it very well.”
However, one of my absolute favourite moments of humour is when Sandy goes to Mrs Murples’ to question her. Mrs Murples is an eccentric local character, who trains boxers. When Sandy goes there, Mrs Murples, her latest boxing student the Battler, and his trainer are having tea and it does not take long for both she and Mrs Murples to spot that the Battler is hiding something:
‘The Battler, never an adept at dissimulation, shied perceptibly. Sandy at once fixed him with a penetrating gaze. Mrs Murples did the same. Under the combined gaze of two formidable females, in the uneasy surroundings of a room crowded with upsettable whatnots, he began to dither.
“Can I’ave another cup of tea?” he asked in a choked voice.
“You’ve already have half a cup left,” remarked Mrs Murples acidly.
The pugilist started violently. “Blimey, so I’ave.”’
Naturally to provoke a response they accuse him of the murder:
“Ow, I say, Mrs. Murples!”
“You’ve said that before,” remarked the lady testily. “Make some intelligent contribution to the conversation.”
“Speak, say something!” yelled Mrs Murples suddenly picking up the silver teapot.’
It should be noted that Mrs Murples has a penchant for throwing objects at people who offend her… There is also the entertaining conversation Sandy has with Mrs Eyton. The latter does not want to use the word murder in front of her children, so during their whole conversation they have to replace the word murder with ‘umpety-umpety’. It definitely makes for an amusing scene.
I think Sprigg must have had some experience of working as a fishmonger as this particular mystery is full of red herrings! Some I felt were so obvious they were almost decoys that make the reader think they have found all of the red herrings on offer, only to discover at the end several sneaky ones which escaped their attention. Whilst reading this book I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s earlier mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), as certain plot elements seemed to parallel quite nicely, and I wondered whether the solution would rest upon them. However, I was happily proved wrong and I love the way Sprigg incorporated this part of the mystery into his overall scheme. Sprigg is no one’s copycat!
Although speaking of cats, one sentence in the book caught my eye: ‘There’s no more hope of getting a conviction on that evidence than there is for a celluloid cat in hell.’ It grabbed my attention as I am sure I have come across the phrase ‘a celluloid cat in hell’ before, in another mystery. I am aware of the saying, ‘a cat in hell’s chance,’ but had not known of this earlier variation.
Christianna Brand’s work contains several mysteries in which the final third is a dizzying sequence of solution reveals, all but one being false and whilst Sprigg does not mimic this structure entirely, I did think he made excellent use of unfurling some twists upon the reader which are not what they initially appear to be. Things thought to be right, are proven wrong, to only be found to be right, to then… Consequently, the rug beneath my satisfaction of having guessed the correct solution early on, was eventually pulled from under me, in a delightful way. It is hard to not be impressed by the solution to this mystery and you don’t feel bad about having not figured it out beforehand.
So it seems like I had saved the best Sprigg until last after all!