This is the final book I needed to re-read before embarking on my latest ranked list, (which I am sure everyone has been keenly anticipating since I mentioned the idea in January). I was particularly interested in reading this one as my Goodreads rating had it marked as a weaker book than the others. I couldn’t remember why this was the case, and the fact I could barely recall anything about the story certainly leant weight to this opinion. It was bit like reading it for the first time, as I certainly had no idea who had done the deed. In keeping with other books in the series, Jane and Dagobert Brown are off on their travels again, this time to Nice.
‘When a gentle blackmailer is shot dead on the Promenade, Dagobert forsakes his studies of Provencal and does a lot of solid detection, the numerous suspicious residents of his hotel providing him with a fertile field.’
(Taken from Jacques Barzun and Wendall Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime)
The Brown’s relationship is enjoyable as ever, with its tender moments, its occasions of exasperation and a great deal of companionability. The story opens from a point of resigned, half-hearted exasperation, on Jane’s part. Then again leaving Dagobert in charge of booking the “working” holiday was never going to be a sensible idea. He initially had ‘in mind a lonely village perched on a rocky hillside,’ yet ends up getting a room at an expensive hotel ‘on the Promenade des Angelis.’ Naturally there is some discrepancy between their surroundings and their luggage, with Jane remarking, ‘I wasn’t dressed for it, but it was pleasant while it lasted’ and later she refers to her husband putting ‘his hobnailed boots in the vast Louis Quinze wardrobe.’ It also turns out he hasn’t bothered to buy return tickets. Jane sees this trip as a consequence of her trying to encourage Dagobert to take up a job offer. His response is to decide to work on a translation of Bertran de Born, a 12th century poet. Much more fun than working in an advertising department, after all.
Jane, as is now the custom, is encouraged to work on a novel as usual and from their very first day in Nice, Dagobert begins coming up with ideas for it: ‘Dagobert is always thinking of ways for me to begin a novel. He has the mistaken impression that I am happier when occupied.’ His planning entails homing in on a fellow hotel guest and selecting them as the murder victim and in a loud voice goes through the possible ways he could die. This is very disconcerting for the Vice-Consul of Santa Rica Don Diego Sebastiano, who is already worried that someone is trying to assassinate him. From the events of their first night, and the people they meet, a tale is moulded. However, the reader should not be surprised when real life does not conform to their story…
What is going on around the Browns is crucial to the writing process, as Jane explains:
‘I have a theory about writing books. The theory is that you have only to look about, take a sympathetic and imaginative interest in the people around you, describe them as well as you can and record simply and honestly what they do and say. This system means you have to move before the book’s published, but it engenders realism.’
She also mentions the loss of friends, but thinks it is worth it for the sake of verisimilitude. Given how transitory their lifestyle is, I can see this being less of a problem for them, than it might be for others.
Like other mysteries in the series, this novel has its metafictional moments, and Jane consciously discusses the writing process. One example is after a suspect has drunkenly confessed to the crime and whilst considering this the next day she writes that:
‘It seemed unfair to use his unadorned statement: “I killed him,” as a chapter ending, since the explanation of this outrageous confession was immediately forthcoming. Nor course would any reader, seeing that the book was only two-thirds finished, for a moment believe it. It would, however, be extremely ingenious if, after confessing freely to the murder and having been therefore dismissed as a suspect, ________ should indeed, turn out to be the assassin of Hugh Arkwright.’
I find these moments interesting as Ames anticipates the reader’s line of thought well.
The title of this novel is perhaps deliberately bogus, as we do not end up with a corpse diplomatique. We do however get murder, as when Don Diego is walking down the street a bullet whizzes past him and kills another man; a man who happens to be at the new cheaper accommodation the Browns have moved to. Who was the intended target? The police assume it was the Vice-Consul, but Dagobert comes to the conclusion that it was Major Arkwright, especially when he discovers he was a genial blackmailer.
Jane and Dagobert don’t really work together on the case, in the way they do in other books. Dagobert plays a lone hand much more, perhaps too much more and a lot of the time he has disappeared and Jane and the reader do not know where he has gone until later in the story. Jane, however, holds the narrative together admirably, and her own experiences do reveal clues and nuggets of information. I think we have a closer affinity with Jane than her husband in the sleuthing stakes. Our amateur sleuths don’t leap into action straight away, with Jane writing that:
‘When it comes down to it neither Dagobert nor I will ever make criminal investigators. We take a keen and – we think – intelligent interest in crime, and it frequently creeps into our conversation […] But if an actual crime is committed, as it were, on our doorstep, we slam the door and quickly think about something else.’
Whilst this is amusing it is not hugely accurate, if we consider the events of the first two books in the series, and naturally it is not long until sleuthing commences here.
As I have mentioned in other reviews, one of the core strengths of this series is Jane’s narrative voice, which adds immeasurably to the reader’s enjoyment, as it is infused with humour in many ways. Sometimes this can be seen in the exasperation, such as when Jane passionately disagrees with Dagobert’s thoughts on another woman’s romantic entanglements:
‘Women with reliable husbands in distant lands and fascinating young French composers madly in love with them on the spot do not get bored. They may get into emotional difficulties, they may get their hearts torn asunder, they may even get mildly blackmailed. But they do not get bored.’
Jane’s thoughts on others are also written in an entertaining fashion. For instance, when describing the Major, she remarks that ‘Iris said he devastated her, though sometimes I thought Iris devastated rather easily.’ It is the slightly judgemental tone that you can kind of relate to and see the humour in. Jane is a positive magnet for people looking for someone to confide in, yearning for some sympathy when they don’t deserve it and with Jane this is something they rarely find. Instead she is rather matter of fact, yet Jane never alienates the reader with this manner. Perhaps that is because we can identify with her, when she feels awkward when a relative stranger has overshared with her, or when she has bought too small a pair of shoes and is struggling to walk home. Or maybe I am biased, as I am disinclined towards the drippier form of female you can get in mid-century crime fiction (more thoughts on this can be found here). Jane is a perfect antidote to them. Finally, humour can occur, in this book, when you least expect it, with the concluding phrase performing the function of a punchline:
‘She and Dagobert had a fascinating technical discussion about their cultivation, varieties and preparation. They omitted no detail and at the end of five minutes I felt I knew each mussel personally. It made a change from Kukulcan and Chac, of course, but I hate hearing about the private life of things I’m eating.’
Kathleen Sproul, reviewing this title for The Saturday Review, wrote positively of it, commenting on its: ‘Effortless, allusive wit [which] catches fantasy of plausible character and action with chuckles – but deft seriousness in right moments. It vibrates with fresh imagination and lively plot.’
Whilst, re-reading this book I found it interesting to note some of the series updates included, such as the fact that back home in Hampstead they have a cat and two Harlequin Great Danes. I am wondering where they acquired such canines, while equally pondering how on earth they fit in the type of flat or rooms they must be renting. Also given the number of holidays they go on they must have some really good friends who can pet sit for them for months at a time. I recall seeing such dogs on the Hodder & Stoughton edition of Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950), but I can’t remember how much they feature in it.
Speaking of this fourth book in the series, the mystery following today’s re-read, its basic premise is referred to in Corpse Diplomatique. One of the suspects talks about a book Jane has written. He says he can’t remember the title but that ‘there was a murder in it, I think. Or maybe it was a suicide. Bloke jumped off a cliff for some reason, I seem to remember.’ This intrigued me as Death of a Fellow Traveller was written in the same year as Corpse Diplomatique. Is Ames merely pre-empting a forthcoming book, in the way Agatha Christie anticipated the title of one of her later books? I can’t remember if Death of a Fellow Traveller refers back to the events in Nice, but if it didn’t then you could argue for it being placed third in the series, rather the fourth, especially if you consider the acquiring of the Great Danes, as this has not happened in either of the first two books.
Nerdy Ames speculations aside, I think the writer sets up an interesting crime to investigate, as it has a number of possibilities and further death complicates matters. Jane at various times organises the data collected during the investigation and at point Dagobert announces that:
‘It’s probably like one of those situations where reader and detective have both been put in possession of the same facts. The detective knows who did it; the reader pits his brains against the detective and tries to guess. Only in this case the reader has probably guessed the answer, while I haven’t.’
I initially thought this might be the case, but unfortunately I fell for a red herring. Others have commented on the fact that the motive and killer come out of nowhere at the end, and this is a sentiment I can concur with. The nature of the investigation is perhaps the weakest part of the book. It takes a little too long to get going and take shape. There is a slowness to this book which I have not found in the others and I would not be surprised if it was the longest novel in the series. So whilst it is not the best case for the Browns, it was not as bad as I feared it might be, based on my original Goodreads rating.