It has been a while since I have read anything by Rice, but in the main I have enjoyed her work. Trial by Fury (1941), The Wrong Murder (1940) and The Right Murder (1941), as well as Home Sweet Homicide (1944) are firm favourites. However, until today I had not read anything that she had written under her Venning penname. She did not use the name very often, only three times, I believe, and today’s read was the second. The first novel was The Man Who Slept all Day (1942), and at the back of book there is an early peek at the third, entitled A Long Time Dead and was due out in July 1943. However, after much googling, what seems to have happened is that the novel had its name changed to Jethro Hammer and was published the following year in 1944, (although Gadetection website posits that it was printed in 1947). I am not sure what caused the delay, nor the title change. But it is always nice to have a mystery cleared up, as initially I was baffled when I could not find a copy of A Long Time Dead online, nor find it in her bibliography.
The story begins with a man waking up on a train, with no idea why he is there. He believes he is Jeffrey Bruno, a writer of sci-fi/horror stories, but the papers in his pocket suggest otherwise, claiming him to be an insurance salesman called John Blake. Things get even worse when he opens a newspaper and sees his photograph. The headline reads that John Blake is a wanted man, for the murder of the wealthy Rufus Carrington. Further information is forthcoming including that Blake had embezzled a lot of money from Rufus’ nephew and that he had been engaged to Rufus’ granddaughter, a decision Rufus disagreed with so much that he was going to write his relation out of his will. Other evidence puts him at the scene of the crime when Rufus is meant to have died.
Stunned by this revelation, Jeffrey manages to make it back to his own apartment, gathering two new allies. But how much can they be trusted? How is he going to prove his innocence? But hang on, his neighbour tells him of his tendency to disappear for a day or week at a time – a habit he did not know about, but actually explains the way he has been missing deadlines and not turning up to events. Has he been leading a double life and not knowing about it? And if so did he in fact do the killing?
As you can see from my synopsis, Jeffrey Bruno is plunged into an incredibly topsy turvy world very quickly and I feel Rice delivers a powerful opening chapter in which she sets this all up. She places her protagonist in a highly unusual trap, and I was keen to see how he would, if he could, extricate himself.
I imagine most people will have twigged that the title of the book alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), which was a sequel to the earlier tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Literary allusions don’t always work, as at times they can seem forced on to a mystery novel. Yet that is not the case here, because Rice uses it in quite a minimal and subtle way, taking the upside down and chaotic essence of the earlier story and then providing her protagonist with a modern day situation that makes him feel as disconcerted and baffled as Alice when she visits Wonderland. In both cases there are moments where things they thought they knew to be facts, are then called into question. For example, in Through the Looking Glass, Alice finds in Wonderland that because she has gone through a mirror to enter the place, everything is reversed, including things such as logic. Interestingly, at the start of Rice’s book Jeffrey seeks mirrors out in order to try and reaffirm he is who he thinks he is. Other connections between the two books include them both featuring a train ride and also there is a period when Alice loses her memory of all nouns and therefore cannot remember her own name, which ties into the doubts Jeffrey entertains about his own identity.
So Rice begins well, setting up a very interesting situation. However, there is something of a ‘but’ coming…
Jeffrey’s plans to prove his innocence are somewhat vague in terms of details, despite his determination. Initially this is okay, as he is fairly disorientated, and he is not from a Mission Impossible film. He has an idea of reconstructing the day to see if he can access Blake’s memories. He also begins to come into contact with some of Rufus’ relatives, who react to him rather strangely. As the book progresses it seems that Jeffrey believes he will find out the truth through them, yet given how reticent they are, this means there is little for the reader to go on. The problem with this though, is that it comprises about 80% of the book, at least and for me, the consistent lack of propulsion in the investigation, makes the plot flounder. The word stagnant also comes to mind. There is another individual called Melville Fairr, who acts mysteriously in the background. He seems to be on Jeffrey’s side, yet reveals nothing about who he is, nor what is his own agenda.
This then takes us to the ending. Now Melville Fairr comes to the fore in the final showdown at the victim’s home. He knows who did the deed, and then Jeffrey says he does. And then Kate said… I haven’t a flaming clue!
Now in fairness when the solution is brought out, there was one part of the plot which has some nice cluing involved, (which I totally missed as usual). The reader really has to be paying attention to notice them. But that is not a bad thing. Moreover, the “main feature” of the solution is a jaw dropping one, the kind that makes you gasp when you see it on TV. Yet, I think this surprise would have been better if there had been more in the previous events to point in its direction, as the reader comes away thinking that Melville must be pretty smart to join up all the dots, given the minimal cooperation given by the other characters. Then again he does have some information which we lack that could get his mind working in the right direction. I think this is perhaps why The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review wrote that it was an: ‘interesting venture in field of split personality,’ yet found the ‘whole thing slightly unconvincing.’ Personally, I rather liked the solution, and Melville’s brand of justice, but I just think it needed to be grafted more securely on to the narrative that preceded it.