I first read this book back in 2013, and for some reason I thought I had already re-read it and reviewed it on the blog. However, I had not. I think I must have confused it with Francis Beeding’s Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931), which incidentally was the book I was supposed to be re-reading. So as you can see my brain is as sharp as a tack today…
‘Wealthy industrialist Charles Collison is found bludgeoned to death shortly after his son, Geoffrey, and nephew, Arthur Cross, return from World War II. As the principal beneficiaries of Charles’ will, both men are suspects. Inspector James, called into investigate, thinks he knows which of them is guilty.’
Whilst the blurb above provides an adequate amount of details about the story, it does overlook the fact that the book is an inverted mystery, in which we have a killer who organises such a neat alibi that even though the police think they know who ought to have done the murder, they can’t actually prove it.
However, I am getting ahead of myself. Despite this being a murder mystery set in London, the story begins with a prologue in which we see our would-be murderer in action during the war. Over these opening pages we get hints of the kind of war he had and the kind of acts that he committed; only at the end of the book do we get a full picture of what happened at this point. I don’t think their actions are condoned, and characters in the book are censorious of them, but at the same time I don’t feel the writer is overly didactic in judging them. There is a strong sense of resentment towards what he has gone through and a firm desire to ensue that he is recompensed one or another after he makes it back home. His bitterness remains after he makes it back to his relations and despite a very generous salary, he only has eyes for a larger cut of his uncle’s wealth. This is one of those rare occasions in which the victim is not an unpleasant figure.
I would say Bax, (who also wrote under the name Andrew Garve), avoids presenting a sympathetic and heroic soldier figure in this character and in many ways I would say his mentality makes him a literary predecessor to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He seems to be incapable of gratitude, which can be seen in his escape across Europe in the prologue and he is taken in and cared for by some Polish farmers:
‘He constantly expressed his gratitude in words, but there was no gratitude in his eyes. The more his strength returned, the more morose he became. There was no thing to read or to do, and these stupid peasant irritated him.’
In common with other mysteries at the time, such as Christianna Brand’s London Particular (1952), fog plays an instrumental part in the killer’s proposed plan and it is interesting to see what setbacks they face along the way and also the actual execution of it.
The police investigation is well depicted, and I enjoyed the character of Inspector James, as he is often humorous with his colleagues. A cat and mouse game develops a little between James and his favoured suspect, though I think it takes something of a deus ex machina to unravel our killer.
At this juncture I felt like the story veers into an Erskine Childers sort of finale with enough nautical details to please the earlier writer. At 50 pages this felt a bit long winded, given the sparseness of the plot overall as there are not many suspects to expand the case. A romance subplot is added into the mix, which I thought initially might be a spot of padding, but in fairness to Bax is woven into the ending nicely.
I have read better by this author, and on this re-read I think I enjoyed it a little less. However, it is a reasonably easy mystery to get a hold of for any fan of the inverted mystery form.