Slight change in programming today, as the book I was planning to read got archived on Netgalley, so I decided to read this one instead. Death at One Blow (1957), is the second book in a quartet of novels featuring Sally and Johnny Heldar; a couple who are an amateur sleuthing duo with a background in bookselling.
Synopsis from Agora:
‘Brimming with wartime secrets and family quarrels, Death at One Blow is the second in Henrietta Hamilton’s Sally and Johnny Heldar mystery series. Needing a break from summer in the city, Sally and Johnny Heldar leave London for the countryside. Tasked with sorting out two jumbled personal libraries in a country estate, the couple are looking forward to a holiday break filled with books, fresh air, and reconnecting with long-time friend Sir Mark. But upon their arrival, the Heldars become privy to tensions within the house, and soon the pair find themselves at the centre of another mystery.’
Hamilton sets up the mystery well, establishing an interesting array of possible motives for bumping off Mark Mercator, a successful Jewish businessman. Mark many years earlier had married into the Thaxton family, and it is a great nephew, Richard, on that side who was intended to inherit the Thaxton’s property and wealth. However, a series of deaths in the family, plus his own presumed demise in the Korean war, left his fiancée unable to pay the death duties and Mark stepped into the breach to buy the country house from her. But now it turns out that Richard is still alive, having recently been released by the Chinese as a former prisoner of war. It is his return which propels Johnny and Sally into the plot, as they are old friends of Mark’s and he needs them to use their professional expertise to sort out the books in the Thaxton library, as he had years earlier upon moving in merged it with his own. He also wishes the books to re-valued for insurance purposes. A missing first edition, a dispute over land development and a disgruntled former employee also enter the mix.
Given the nature of the murder an obvious suspect emerges and the amateur investigation, at least, leans more towards proving their innocence. I have read another book in the series, Answer in the Negative (1959), and I had been less keen on Sally’s detective work being derailed and stymied by her husband. That doesn’t really happen here, but this time around, Sally’s does not do any independent detective work. The detective mantle very much rests more upon Johnny’s shoulders, and the narrative itself focuses more upon the information revealed through the suspects and witnesses talking to one another, rather than upon police interviews.
Country house mystery can be seen as bland, generic and formulaic, but I actually think they have a great deal of flexibility and after WW2 I think many crime writers used them as a canvas upon which to paint contemporary issues that arose over WW2. The beginning of Hamilton’s novel sets such issues up, though I don’t think they are as well explored, as they are in other mysteries such as Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951). Nevertheless, as the synopsis suggests, WW2 is revealed to cast long shadows upon several of the characters in this story.
As I said earlier, the mystery is set up well, but I feel the subsequent investigation and the ending could have been more tightly plotted, since an info dump is required to bring about the solution. I guessed who the killer might be early on, though I didn’t quite have the motive correct. Nevertheless, Hamilton;s mystery trots along at a quick pace and Johnny and Sally are an engaging duo to follow.
Source: Review Copy (Agora Books via Netgalley)