Today I am returning to an author, whose work I have become increasingly fond of. Here is a good synopsis of the mystery from the website Fantastic Fiction:
‘A temperamental tortoise. An ingenious trap to catch a killer. Lovely Celia Kent, a journalist from London, had so looked forward to a quiet vacation at Madame Oliver’s gracious hotel on the French Riviera. It was disappointing to arrive and find Madame no longer in charge and the hotel itself inhabited by a group of very strange guests. Most disturbing of all was a stockbroker named Barre, whose strange entourage included a very temperamental tortoise. The sudden disappearance of this odd pet on a deserted quay provided the perfect setting for sinister things to come – including violent and cold-blooded murder.’
The tone of this book, particularly its opening, reminded me of the later Christie title, At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), as both are concerned with idea that when revisiting a place with positive associations, you can’t turn back the clock, to the way things were. Degeneration of one kind or another occurs in both stories, and in the case of Ferrars’, the key factor for the coastal village of La Marette failing to reach Celia’s memories of it, is WW2. The conflict has left its mark on the village, both its buildings and its people, and it is the people who cannot so easily repair the damage wrought upon them. Many characters are in financially precarious situations, not least Madame Oliver and her husband who are seeing their son and his wife turn their successful business into a shambles. With no savings to fall back on, the elderly couple are envisaging having to take over the reins of the running the hotel, and fear what their son’s response will be.
The post war effect can also be seen in other ways in the novel. Celia’s fiancé died fighting in the conflict and any hints of romance in the present day are more subdued. Modern readers might interpret the continental attitude towards murder in this story as callous and heartless, with the hotel owners, the locals and other French guests prioritising businesses and social activities running as usual. To them it seems unreasonable to cancel anything and Celia is charged with taking the murder too seriously at times. Yet I felt perhaps this lack of emotion was a possible consequence of the characters’ war time experiences; some of them had been arrested by the Germans and one woman had even been taken to Auschwitz. Aside from murder there is other criminal activity taking place, which is war related, and this very much feeds into the denouement. The solution is arrived at, but at what cost? It is a bittersweet ending in some respects.
It is through Celia that we encounter the other hotel guests, though some get more attention than others. One of these more focused upon characters is Michael Butler, who seems to have put his walking holiday on pause at La Marette. Yet Celia is suspicious of him from the first time she meets him and does not believe everything he says about himself. Michael is also in a similar position with her. Nevertheless, despite their mistrustfulness of one another they often share what they notice going on around them. At one point Celia asks him:
‘What’s wrong with everybody? What’s in the air? Canadian divers and treasure ships, ungrateful sons and anxious parents, voices that talk in the night about mortal terror, Frenchwomen who think that England and France should be one nation, lucky tortoises, husbands who are afraid of their wives talking to me in case they should say what they shouldn’t […] Is this what one expects to find when one comes on holiday?’
Interestingly, Michael replies: ‘With the exception of the tortoise, why not? […] It sounds to me like a fairly average slice of human experience.’ The tortoise he feels brings ‘in a touch of fantasy.’
Zizi, the tortoise, does not have many appearances in the book and they are usually quite short. However, that does not stop her having a significant impact on the plot. Zizi belongs to one of the hotel guests, a stockbroker named Monsieur Barre, and ‘he believes that she’s lucky. Every time, before he makes a deal on the stock exchange, he rubs her shell, and that, he says, makes the deal turns out a success.’ Zizi frequently goes missing and the hotel staff and guests alike are invariably galvanised into hunting for her. Yet it seems that the killer has utilised this common activity for their own murderous designs, relocating the tortoise further away at the quay in order to ensure everyone will be out looking for Zizi for quite some time; time enough that no one will have a decent alibi… The tortoise’s involvement in the crime becomes a running jokes of sorts, with Michael Butler getting quite exasperated when others mention Zizi:
‘Don’t bring that damn tortoise into it! If a tortoise can have anything to do with the murder, I’ll – I’ll fry it in oil and eat the damn thing! […] Leave that tortoise out of it, if ever there was an ill-starred beast, bringing misfortune to everyone whose path it crosses, it’s that Zizi.’
I was surprised by the choice of victim as given the setup provided the reader is arguably more likely to pick another character for the role, someone who could feasibly be disliked by a larger number of people. Ferrars’ selection though is an interesting one and certainly gets you thinking about possible motives. The sunken ship(s) angle of the plot may sound too fantastical and juvenile to work, but the way the writer handles this trope ensures that it meshes with the plot effectively. The murder weapon is also quite unusual, though in keeping with the setting.
The police very much work off the page, though they are far from stupid. Consequently, the on page investigation is more in the accidental sleuth line. Celia is thrown into a situation and through her interactions with others relevant information is forthcoming and at various stages in the mystery the reader along with Celia is given an opportunity to think through what has been discovered, to see how it might incriminate or exonerate certain people. Michael Butler is key part of this process, though because of the lack of trust between him and Celia, we do not see them operating as a sleuthing duo.
All in all I enjoyed this read and I think I can easily get into Ferrars’ writing style. The culprit could have been slightly more led up to, but the solution itself does not feel forced and cleverly turns known information on its head.