Apologies for the delay in posting this review, but the arrival of these two yesterday, somewhat impeded my reading time.
But back to the book…
This is the first of eight mysteries in which bookseller and amateur or biblio detective Theodore Terhune appears. Interestingly, Terhune is not only a bookseller but also in this debut case has ambitions of becoming a mystery novelist, (having already had some short stories published.) My copy is the recent reprint edition produced by the Moonstone Press and accompanying it is an introduction by John Norris, whose blog you probably already read, Pretty Sinister. If you are a blog reader of his you will not be surprised that in his introduction, he provides a context/history for the bibliomystery which is full of obscure examples I had not heard of. Yes, with John we expect no less! I found the introduction offered first time readers to the series a very helpful overview of the reoccurring characters and the different type of literary experiments Graeme made. On this last point John asserts that ‘Bruce Graeme was one of the finest narrative experimenters of the Golden Age.’ The novelty of Seven Clues in Search of a Crime is that we are not presented with a definitive crime to solve, i.e. the body on the carpet. Instead the book is structured around seven clues and John describes them as ‘foreshadow[ing] a crime yet to be committed.’ Having now read the story I feel this applies to some of the earlier clues, but regarding the later ones, and the final solution, past crimes gone undetected also become involved. This is not a criticism of the mystery and on the whole I would say this unusual angle/narrative hook works very well. But I am getting ahead of myself, so here is what the novel is about:
‘Theodore Terhune, bookseller in the tranquil Kent village of Bray-in-the-Marsh, interrupts the attempted robbery of Helena Armstrong, secretary-companion to Lady Kylstone. Someone was trying to steal the key to the Kylstone burial vault, which will shortly be open to the public for the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. When the key goes missing, Terhune is certain there must be something in the vault the thieves are after, but why bother when it will shortly be accessible to all? A series of mysterious encounters leads the curious Terhune from one clue to another, and eventually to the secret past of two families.’
The opening sequence of the novel has a Francis Durbridge feel to it, with a young woman in a car on a foggy day, being held up during a robbery. Yet humour, even in peril, is not long in appearing, as when she perceives that an outsider has arrived, an outsider that she hopes will rescue her, her hope rapidly dissolves when she gets a better look:
‘If only the newcomer had been a policeman, or at least a man with muscular limbs and burly shoulders. But no! She could just see, sideways through the corner of one eye, a slight figure in loose-fitting tweeds, a meek, ordinary face, horn-rimmed spectacles.’
She goes on to mentally describe him as a ‘poor rabbit.’ Yet this poor rabbit is Terhune and I wondered whether his appearance was a slight riff on Allingham’s Albert Campion. With such an appearance the reader might be expecting Terhune to secretly be good at judo or martial arts. Yet I think Graeme wisely does not make him so and it is the arrival of an actual policeman which causes the robbers to flee and all Terhune gets for his pains is a very literal pain in the head. The trope of the unlikely hero is deployed effectively here and is not overdone.
The humour in this narrative is very often in the small details and in the way these details are described, such as with the onion smelling hand which clamps itself over Helena’s mouth and her reaction is intermixed with fear and a resentment of the sods law principle at work. Narrative voice is an important factor for me when I am reading and I found Graeme’s to be vibrant in its comedy, yet again not excessive. Furthermore, the comedy is not restricted to the primary characters and there is a wonderful moment in the story in which it is said that a family retainer, cycling past the church late one night, hears voices. He thinks it might be ghosts and is all but ready to speed away, ‘but for the fact that he heard somebody mutter a particularly rude swear word. Being convinced that ghosts do not swear, he remained where he was…’
Mysteries which lack a straightforward murder can sometimes take a while to form as the mystery has to be built up to and this can give the plot a feeling of vagueness. Graeme’s mystery however does not suffer this problem, as each unusual incident elicits a number of questions which means that within three clues there is a substantial puzzle to ponder over, and what is more important, is that the journey to that point is an enjoyable one. Graeme also shows skill in developing and expanding his mystery in a plausible way, using the local community to bring in new narrative threads. This is my second read by Graeme, having reviewed The Undetective (1962) last year. I enjoyed the concept of that one yet felt the way it is resolved was not entirely satisfactory. This is not the case here, with all seven clues supporting the plot well and I liked how they propelled the book forward. There is no feeling of the story being stagnant, waiting for something to happen. As the mystery progressed I did alight upon the culprit and I managed to sidestep one key red herring, but this did not dampen my enjoyment for this book.
So all in all this was a very good start to a new series, which I hope to read more from. Terhune and the other supporting cast are very appealing figures, who I definitely want to find out more about and Graeme does an effective job in this first book of establishing his fictional universe. Roll on more Terhune!
See also: John on his own blog has talked about the book further here.