Today’s read was a completely new-to-me title when I saw it in the British Library catalogue last year. This WW2 set mystery was published under the name of The Grinning Pig in America and came from a husband and wife writing team: Gordon Neil Stewart and Pamela Hansford Johnson. They only co-wrote two mysteries together and Murder’s a Swine was their final one, with the first being Tidy Death (1940). Martin Edwards’ introduction for the British Library reprint provides a lot of interesting information on the lives of these two, not least that Pamela nearly married Dylan Thomas in the 1930s. Apparently his drinking and ‘roving eye’ ultimately dissuaded her from doing so. Both writers joined up as ARP wardens when the war started, and this joint experience is used in the opening of the tale.
Clem Poplett, a young ARP warden, in the company of a local resident, Agnes Kinghof, discovers a corpse in an air raid shelter for a block of flats – the body concealed behind a wall of sandbags. This is not Agnes’ first experience of murder, as she and her husband, Andrew, encountered such a crime in Tidy Death and helped as amateur sleuths to solve it. Yet the local police, plus Andrew’s cousin Lord Whitestone, (who holds an important position at Scotland Yard), are not overly keen for their involvement in this case. However, events keep pushing them into it. In particular it seems one of their neighbours in the block of flats is being terrorised by threatening notes and a pig’s head, (which is seen in a variety of places). This series of unpleasant pranks is quickly connected to the previously found body and it seems as though the killer has not finished yet…
I think I have grown quite fond of novels in which a corpse is uncovered through a chance encounter or because someone was doing something they shouldn’t have been. This book falls into the latter category as we are told that:
‘If Clem Poplett, youngest warden at the post in Featherstone Mews, had done as he was told and continued his patrol instead of dodging in out of the rain to one of the area shelters in Stewarts Court, he would not have discovered his first corpse.’
Clem is only a minor character, yet the authors still make him a memorable one, as there is something rather sweet about the description that: ‘He was young, he had the face of an adored pet rabbit, he had red hair, he stood five feet four in his socks, and he was dreadfully cold and wet.’
There is a lot to love about this book and I definitely think it is one of the standout titles from the British Library Crime Classics’ catalogue. One of the reasons for this is, is its wonderful prose style. From the very first pages, it felt like slipping into a warm bath, with its understated humour and comfort read factor. Humour is used for a variety of reasons in this book and I liked how sometimes it is used to make a potential victim less sympathetic: ‘They ought to be evacuated, thought Mrs Sibley, but less because she cared for their welfare than because the noise had always irritated her.’
Agnes is also my new favourite sleuth. I love her delightfully active imagination, which perks up her conversation with others no end. For example, there are many amusing pieces of conversation in which Agnes shares something her ‘aunt General Sidebotham’ used to say, such as ‘you could tell a man’s character by the state of his waste-pipe.’ The mind boggles!
Agnes and Andrew work well as a team, with the latter not taking over too much. In fact, due to his war work in training soldiers, he is sometimes off the page, as his involvement in the case is somewhat dependent on his leave. Even so one of characters does comment on his generous leave, but I think as readers we are happy to forgive it. Agnes gets into some scrapes, and some of her decisions are not as sensible as they ought to be, but she is not a full-on HIBK heroine, and some of her ideas do pay off.
I enjoyed Agnes and Andrew’s interactions with his cousin, as Lord Whitestone, (a.k.a. Lord Pig), does not get on with Andrew, though he is more pliable with Agnes. This dynamic sets up a lot of comedy in the piece and I liked how Agnes and her husband get their own back on him for his condescending behaviour. An additional benefit to these moments of humour is that they are also a window into a society at war and you get a real sense of what everyday life was like. It should also be noted that the conflict equally aids the plans of the killer.
Moving on to the mystery itself, I think it is an unusual whodunnit. The sleuths, official and amateur, are pretty sure they know who must have done. The only difficulty is that they do not know what they look like nor what identity they might be currently operating under. It is not a closed set of suspects, yet the range of characters we interact with narrow down the field. I did not figure out which suspect was the killer, as I had my sights elsewhere and had developed at least two different theories of who was behind everything.
Information is gathered, though I would say the book functions more as a thriller, in the very best sense of the word and the story is not without its red herring moments. The final reveal of the murderer is highly unusual and is not one you are likely to forget in a hurry! Whilst you are reading it, it completely works, being an intriguing combination of the comic and the dark. It is only when you have to tell someone else about it that you realise quite how daft it is. But it was daft which worked for me!
This is my favourite British Library Crime Classic reprint since they reissued Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955) and it is certainly going to be a strong contender for my Reprint of the Year awards choices this December. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review, also enjoyed the book too, writing that it was: ‘Hugely amusing, filled with action, brimming with good talk and likeable people – and eccentric but excellent sleuthing.’ It is a real shame that Gordon and Pamela did not write more books in the series and I can only hope that the first novel, Tidy Death, will be reprinted at some point.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)