I really enjoyed my first encounter with Guy Cullingford’s work, Post Mortem (1953), but I was less keen on my second, Conjuror’s Coffin (1954). So I wasn’t entirely sure how successful today’s read would be.
‘Edwardian days in a provincial city – what could be more suggestive of unrippled calm? Yet the quiet town of Cattminster was suddenly diverted by a startling murder – startling because all the evidence pointed to young Richard Groom, grandson of the late Canon of Cattminster Cathedral, as the murderer! Richard had just returned from two years in the Amazon wilderness, to find that Dr Morby, who had married Richard’s one-time fiancée, was making her thoroughly miserable. So when Dr Morby’s evening glass of spiced rum was spiked with prussic acid, a poison which Richard was known to have processed from the mandioca plant in Brazil; and when it was also known that Richard had visited his ex-fiancée, and moreover, had quarrelled violently with the Doctor, there was only one thing to do, and Richard was duly arrested and charged with murder. But Richard had five stout allies who believed unquestionably in his innocence – his three maiden aunts, and the two companions of his travels. With the one idea in common, but with their own individual ideas on how to set about it, they got to work to prove his innocence – with unexpected results!’
This is another one of those reviews in which I question the synopsis included with the book. The one above starts off well and establishes the pickle Richard lands himself in, early in the narrative. It is the two last sentences I wish to quibble with:
‘But Richard had five stout allies who believed unquestionably in his innocence – his three maiden aunts, and the two companions of his travels. With the one idea in common, but with their own individual ideas on how to set about it, they got to work to prove his innocence – with unexpected results!’
I am hoping it is not just me, but these sentences create certain expectations within the reader. It leads you to think that the narrative trajectory will be structured around the various investigations these five friends and relations conduct, with clues and pieces of information being revealed as they go along. Yet in the reality the narrative Cullingford offers diverges a lot from this blueprint.
To begin with the five do not blindly believe in his innocence. More than one of them thinks Richard might have done the deed, having been goaded into doing so by the Hester, the doctor’s wife. Others think maybe he was an accomplice of this woman, who no one has a good opinion of.
This story is rather a slow one in general and by the halfway point neither of the five characters have begun making any proper investigations in the amateur vein. If anything their activity in this book reveals the limitations of what they can achieve. This is one of those rare novels where you are glad there are police involved to sort it all out. If Richard had to rely solely on his family and friends, then I would not fancy his chances. Cullingford does throw a surprise new direction 60% into the tale, which reignited my dwindling interest in the narrative, though again it manages to prove the fallibility of Richard’s so-called allies.
Consequently, the structure of this mystery is far from linear and no fully formed amateur investigation ever materialises. This is a character driven, rather than plot focused novel, and of the kind in which the plot suffers as a result. Moreover, the central characters are set up well, particularly the three maiden aunts, yet their dysfunctional dynamic is not really exploited and if anything they only stall the action of the piece. It should not come as a shock that the denouement falls flat, despite the drama and I don’t think any reader will be surprised by the solution. It is the only one available.
This is all a great pity as the opening of the book is engaging in several ways. Firstly, there is the disconcerting opening line:‘The six male corpses were laid out side by side,’ with the reader’s curiosity increasing when a woman says, “I shall take this one… and this, Mrs Marrowfat.” What cannibalistic community have we entered into we wonder? Obviously, that is not the case, but I liked the way Cullingford uses ambiguous language to trip up, albeit temporarily, the reader. I also liked the way the author contrasts the overt dangers of the Amazonian jungle, with the dangers in an English town. Sarah, one of Richard’s aunts is aware of the urban perils, but he sadly, for him, is not:
‘Safe! You don’t think it safe, Aunt Sarah? You should have been with me on my journeyings. I have faced the dangers of fever, rapids, sickness, starvation, attach from wild animals and the constant threat of becoming captive to hostile Indians. Shall I fear a visit to an ailing girl?’
Moreover, I particularly enjoyed how Hester is quickly shown to be a social scheming and manipulative heroine in distress, rather than an innocent one. I felt this decision was good for the story, as it prevents the text from becoming too cloying. Even though she lost a child a year ago, the people around Hester struggle to feel any sympathy for her, and it seems natural to be disbelieving of her story that her husband is trying to kill her. Again, the blurb does not really key into this aspect of Hester’s character as you would judge from that, that she was a kind, wronged woman. I would also say Cullingford does not use Hester as much as he could have done in the book. Her page presence is quite minimal, and her actions invariably take place behind the scene.
Oh well, not such a great read after all, which is a shame given how much I liked the first book I read. I have one more book by this writer in my TBR pile, though I think it might be some time until I get to it.