Hunt the Tortoise (1950) by Elizabeth Ferrars

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.’

Overall Thoughts

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.

First prize for inaccurate cover drawing goes to…

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.

Rating: 4.25/5

8 comments

  1. Thanks for the review. 😊 This sounds like a novel I’ll enjoy, and to date I’ve only read two titles by Elizabeth Ferrars. But unfortunately the title is not easily available in my local Kindle store.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is a trickier one to get a hold of. My edition is an Ulverscroft large print edition as it is. Copies of the Fontana paperback do appear online from time to time but tend to be more expensive. them.

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  2. “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. ”

    So right, i grew up in the south of France 15 years later and still the deep scarses of the war were still present. For 2 years the 2 factions of resistances after the liberation, communist and republicans were fighting against each other and the mafia who had created grown strong of the marché noir.

    Excellent revue, i hope i can find the book on kindle.
    Thank for it.
    Amitié Eve

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad Ferrars’ portrayal was not too wildly inaccurate. I think she is careful to show that the lack of emotion is contributed to by the difficulties the war had left, contrasting to some 1930s mysteries where characters think solving a murder is such fun or a lark. I don’t know if it is available on Kindle, but second hand copies appear on ebay and abe books from time to time.

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  3. Kate: I’m amazed (and pleased!) to see how similar our reactions and our reviews are–we picked some of the same quotes and highlighted some of the same features.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve just read your review and yes it is nice to see we both enjoyed it and picked out similar things. I don’t often feel my reading tastes align so well with others, so it is pleasing to have managed it for once! I was interested to read that you had enjoyed Ferrars’ stand alone novels less and I was wondering which ones you had read?

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  4. The worst one was The Small World of Murder ( a one-star rating): “Very oppressive, instead of suspenseful as most of her non-series books are. And really quite convoluted–especially the explanation. I’m still not sure that I understand the motivation behind the kidnapping and the murders. Unlike other novels I’ve read by Ferrars, there wasn’t much to like about the characters, either. I didn’t feel the empathy that I would expect to feel for parents who had lost their only child and I didn’t feel drawn into their difficulties in recovering from the loss.” Have also read The March Hare Murders–which was “okay,” but the suspense fell a little flat and there wasn’t much mystery to the mystery (2.5 stars). I’ve also read In at the Kill, The Cup & the Lip, Trial by Fury, & Murders Anonymous–all before blogging and none made enough of an impression on me for me to give you any sense of what I thought about them. Apparently the best of the stand alones that I’ve read is The Pretty Pink Shroud–I gave that one four stars in pre-blogging days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very helpful to know, thanks! I don’t know how many non series ones I have read. I think I have managed to dip into about three of her series so far and enjoyed them. Breath of Suspense a late thriller has been the only one I really didn’t like.

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