So Pretty a Problem (1950) by Francis Duncan

It has been over four years since I last read a book by Francis Duncan. I have read two previously: Motive for Murder (1947) in 2017 and Murder for Christmas (1949) in 2015. Duncan was the penname for William Underhill (1918-1988), and he published over 20 detective novels between 1938 and 1959. I was surprised to learn, from our good friend Wikipedia, that aside from his Mordecai Tremaine series, Duncan also wrote stand alone mysteries and a series featuring Peter Justice. Today’s read is the 5th in the Tremaine series.  

Synopsis

‘Adrian Carthallow, enfant terrible of the art world, is no stranger to controversy. But this time it’s not his paintings that have provoked a blaze of publicity – it’s the fact that his career has been suddenly terminated by a bullet to the head. Not only that, but his wife has confessed to firing the fatal shot.

Inspector Penross of the town constabulary is, however, less than convinced by Helen Carthallow’s story – but has no other explanation for the incident that occurred when the couple were alone in their clifftop house.

Luckily for the Inspector, amateur criminologist Mordecai Tremaine has an uncanny habit of being in the near neighbourhood whenever sudden death makes its appearance. Investigating the killing, Tremaine is quick to realise that however handsome a couple the Carthallows were, and however extravagant a life they led, beneath the surface there’s a pretty devil’s brew…’

Overall Thoughts

The book is divided into three parts, with the first quickly plunging us into a suspicious death. Helen Carthallow seeks out Tremaine on the beach near her summer home, to reveal that she has killed her husband accidently whilst fooling around with him and a gun. As you do… Suffice to say neither Tremaine nor the reader are impressed by her first version of events. I felt this was a good setup for Duncan, as it allows the reader to play around with a few possibilities. One text I kept in the back of my mind was Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), which equally features a decidedly extinct artist and extramarital relationships, and as Duncan’s plot unfolded I returned to it, trying to see how it compared.

Helen is an ambiguous for Tremaine, who is uncomfortable with her having an affair, but was she a victim of her husband or a cool hearted cynic? At the beginning Duncan writes that Tremaine:

‘found himself thinking he had never been sure of Helen Carthallow. He had never been certain just what kind of person she was. And he had never been able to understand why she had married Adrian Carthallow or what was Carthallow’s real attitude towards her.’

His indecision over Helen carries through until nearer the end when his sentimentality wins out.

Tremaine is a retired tobacconist and an amateur sleuth. Early on in the novel it is said that:

‘The Press had decided that it was a matter of no small interest that an elderly gentleman of mild appearance, who pince-nez always seemed to be on the point of slipping off the end of his nose, and who had a weakness for reading literature in which romance was depicted in colours more roseate than nature should make a habit of solving murder mysteries in his spare time…’

Aside from this excerpt demonstrating Duncan’s fondness for a long sentence, it also reveals how being a sleuth is not an ego trip for Tremaine. In fact when it comes to publicity, Tremaine finds it all ‘very embarrassing. Being naturally rather a shy individual he had found it difficult to cope with his reputation as an astute detective. He possessed the perpetual feeling that he was not living up to what people expected of him.’ I thought presenting Tremaine as lacking in confidence was interesting and quite unusual when it comes to fictional male detectives from that era, as is the fact that his sentimentality is at war with his interest in criminology. When reading this mystery I wondered whether his sentimentality would mar his detective work. Whilst justice is not thwarted, I think his judgements concerning some of the suspects is impinged upon and makes him slow to act. Even the narrative questions his insight into others at times:

‘Mordecai Tremaine was simple enough to believe that all attractive young women should be in love and be loved. And he had not thought that Helen Carthallow’s relations with her husband were as ideal as they should have been. He had felt sorry for her. He had wanted to do something about it. Which, of course, shows how fundamentally naïve in such matters he really was.’

Yet I think because Tremaine is a man, Duncan tries to have his cake and eat it. He gives Tremaine incredibly soppy moments and has him reflect after one interview:

‘Altogether it was a stimulating evening. It didn’t produce any startling facts, bit it produced a great deal of atmosphere. Which, as far as Mordecai Tremaine was concerned, was equally as good. He thrived upon atmosphere. It was the best of all germinating influences for the seeds of theory that dwelt within him.’

But then Duncan suddenly has Tremaine revert into a cooler detective mode, particularly in the final section of the book. I found these two distinct sides to Tremaine jarring at times and I did wonder if Tremaine had been a female character, the writer might have happily had him retain his sentimentality throughout and bring in another, probably male, character to wrap up the case. Instead Tremaine gets to indulge in sentimentality whilst retaining respect from his male peers, particularly his police friends. Tremaine provides quite a stark contrast to Miss Marple, whose judgement is depicted as far less clouded. But then perhaps being an elderly woman, her character couldn’t afford to make too many severe slipups, if she was to be taken seriously?

Moving on to Duncan’s writing style, I invariably find that he uses more words than necessary and that his novels are description heavy and that there can be long passages where no dialogue features at all. This is a particular problem in part 2 of the mystery, which is over 100 pages long, making it the biggest section of the book. I think it was an unwise decision on Duncan’s part to give so much page space to this section as it is an extended flashback of the time running up to the murder. It provides a few new crumbs of information, but we certainly did not need 100+ pages to deliver them. Moreover, it shows how much Tremaine has been sitting on in terms of information, which he has failed to pass on to the police in part 1. Unsurprisingly the pace of the book takes a sharp nosedive and part 3 of the story has to speed up the action a lot in order to bring about the denouement. In addition, it is at this late stage that Duncan decides to throw in his red herrings, yet I think his inclusion of them is clumsy. They are easy to unravel and culprit confession is still required to achieve an arrest, which I always find unsatisfying.

However, to end on more of a positive note, Duncan’s prose does have some sparks of colour such as when we are introduced to Roberta Fairham:

‘Just recently she seemed to have been taking pains to improve her appearance. She had been experimenting with nail varnish, mascara and lipstick. She had also been cultivating a bright manner. the results had not been entirely satisfactory. She had acquired the air of a half-finished portrait that the artist had had to leave because he wasn’t quite certain how to go on.’

There is also this passage when we learn about Tremaine’s difficulties with pipe smoking:

‘After much tribulation he had schooled his stomach to take to a pipe without bringing public disgrace upon him, but there were still times when rebellious nature took a delight in making his role of the Great Detective, smoking his way to a solution of the latest mystery, an extremely difficult one to maintain in comfort.’

*sighs* Well if nothing else I have reminded myself why it has been four years since I have read a Tremaine mystery!

Rating: 3.25/5

See also: Brad had also reviewed this title here.

16 comments

  1. I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever actually read a Duncan or have just listened to them as audiobooks but I remember enjoying all of those–3, I think–quite a bit including this one. But, then again, I drift toward the wordy side in my writing and as you know, like Innes who can hardly be accused of concise writing. I will have to keep a lookout for actual printed books of the ones I listened to and the two I’ve apparently not run into.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked this book much better than either you or Brad. I admit to its faults, but I enjoyed reading the book, I like the main character, and I liked the structure of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it was an unwise decision on Duncan’s part to give so much page space to this section as it is an extended flashback of the time running up to the murder.

    Duncan should have told the story the other way round: beginning with flashback leading up to the discovery of the murder and investigation. Putting that lengthy detour into the past in the middle was a stylistic mistake, but still liked it (more than you did) and not just because it was unrecorded locked room mystery!

    I consider Mordecai Tremaine to be a literary relative of another Agatha Christie characters, Mr. Satterthwaite, who are both elderly man and self-described friends of lovers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, I forgot to mention it was a locked room mystery of sorts, though the solution to it was a bit meh in my opinion. You make a good point about Tremaine being similar to Satterwaite.

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  4. I have just jumped the last 40 pages of the middle section, simply because I was losing the will to carry on. Any clues I’ve missed, I’m happy to give up to the GAD gods.

    I agree that Duncan’s style is rather prolix, but there’s some real charm in some of these descriptions. Were I not such a plot fiend, I could probably have read all of that middle section just for the charm of his descriptions.

    Right, onto the solution…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. […] Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: I found these two distinct sides to Tremaine jarring at times and I did wonder if Tremaine had been a female character, the writer might have happily had him retain his sentimentality throughout and bring in another, probably male, character to wrap up the case. Instead Tremaine gets to indulge in sentimentality whilst retaining respect from his male peers, particularly his police friends. Tremaine provides quite a stark contrast to Miss Marple, whose judgement is depicted as far less clouded. But then perhaps being an elderly woman, her character couldn’t afford to make too many severe slipups, if she was to be taken seriously? […]

    Like

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