Today I am reviewing Witting’s debut novel, which was reprinted by Galileo Publishers, in October. I decided to read this one after my latest Graeme read, as I was in the mood for another mystery involving a bookshop and a bookseller acting as a sleuth.
‘John Rutherford, bookseller and sometimes novelist, discovers the bludgeoned corpse of a policeman one evening while taking a stroll in a rainstorm. The overturned bicycle is what first catches Rutherford’s eye before spotting PC Johnson’s body sprawled on the sodden ground of Phantom Coppice. When Inspector Charlton is called in to find the murderer, he realises that the perpetrator of this crime may be prepared to go to extreme lengths to cover their tracks…’
Witting tells his story using a first-person narrative, with our bookseller, soon to be sleuth, John Rutherford, speaking. The novel gets straight to the point opening with our dead policeman being mentioned in the very first sentence. The exposition of the narrative intrigued me as it felt different to the other later books I have read by Witting. This is because the beginning paragraph seemed quite stark and detailed about the crime scene, and with this the tone seemed atypical. I wondered whether Witting had been influenced by Raymond Chandler’s school of writing:
‘I shielded the match from the rain with a hand that shook a little and looked down at the body of the policeman lying, on the grass bank by the side of the lane, with the head, terribly battered, lolling grotesquely back over the edge of the ditch. Stretched on his back, slightly sideways across the bank, with his feet not quite touching the road and his arms flung wide under his shiny black cape, he seemed more like the carcase of some gigantic bat; and as the November rain mingled with the blood still seeping through his dark, curly hair and dripped, a dirty red, into the stagnant water of the ditch, I felt rather sick.’
I thought the bat image was quite an effective one. But in case you’re wondering, the Chandler feel to the piece does not linger for long, although we do get a smattering of it later:
‘The business of Johnson was beginning to prey upon me. My thoughts kept returning to it like a tongue to a bad tooth. The other little affair on the Lake, when I must have come nearer to death than I had ever been before, had left its mark on me. I wouldn’t have admitted it to anybody, but the fear was for ever in my mind that although, through Spot, the first attempt on my life had failed, next time it might be successful.’
One aspect of the opening chapters which did remind me of Witting’s subsequent writing is the autobiographical segment concerning the protagonist. This is a device deployed more extensively in Measure for Murder (1941). It is more reined in, in Murder in Blue, which I think was suitable for the type of story that it is.
An interesting, although minor, part of the background, is the theme of WW1. For example, when investigating near the crime scene, explosions are heard which denote that it is 11am and therefore time for the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. Moreover, other characters reflect on their experiences during that conflict, such as one policeman for whom the corpse brings back unpleasant memories. One of the things that he is feels is guilt, guilt that he made it through the war ‘without a scratch.’ He goes on to say that ‘when I think of the thousands who didn’t – chaps who are still alive and suffering – it makes me go ‘ot all over.’ He further opines that:
‘I rather be killed like that than mown down by a machine-gun. It’s more human. That’s the dreadful thing about war – the impersonality of it. I can understand a man killing a fellow ‘e hates, but to murder a chap who might, if you’d met him in peace-time, ‘ave become your best friend, just because what your politicians think doesn’t agree with what ‘is politicians think – it’s all wrong.’
No doubt due to the story starting at the run up to November 11th we are also told that there is a fundraiser appeal on the radio: ‘He was appealing on be’alf of all the poor fellows the War made wrecks of…’ What I found surprising at the end of the book was how WW1 managed to become incorporated into the unmasking of the killer.
Metafictional moments are not present in all of Witting’s work, but they do make the odd appearance. Measure for Murder includes some examples, and so does today’s title under review. I feel these aspects were handled well. For instance, John Rutherford comments on how a writer of fiction has more freedom when it comes to the description of their protagonist:
‘But when a fellow tells his own tale, without any of the advantages of an historian and all the disadvantages of an autobiographer, he must do one of two things. Either he must give a fair and truthful description of himself, and if the picture he paints is a pleasant one he appears, a thought conceited; or he must slur over – even entirely omit to mention – his physical endowments, and thus give rise to a misconception in the minds of his readers.’
Then there is this passage in which Rutherford discusses the naming of detective novels, having recently just finished one that evening:
‘I can’t remember exactly what it was called, but I know it had the word “Murder” in the title, which seems to me such a good idea for a crime-book. You know, when you see the name, exactly what you are getting, whereas, if a thriller is called Low Tide, The Eighth Heaven or Salmon and Shrimp, you tend to pass it over in favour of The Greenhouse Murder or Murder Hath No Tongue, in spite of the fact that it is more likely than not a more exciting and better-written story. Mr S. S. Van Dine, whose painstakingly scholarly detective -stories are well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, must realise this, for the title of every one of his books that I have read contains the word “Murder,” not in various combinations, but always in the same form – The Greene Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case, The Dragon Murder Case, and so on. I wonder whether you would be reading this book now, if I had not called it Murder in Blue?’
This section interested me as it flies in the face of other opinions held by crime writers, at the time, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, who felt generic mystery titles should be taxed to encourage authors to create original names for their novels.
When reading books such as this one, and the ones in Bruce Graeme’s Theodore Terhune series, it is hard to not suddenly feel inspired to run a bookshop! If it is anything like Rutherford’s I think we would all want to work for him. His assistant George certainly has things sorted:
‘At the end of the first month, I doubled his salary – George would never admit that he worked for such common things as wages – and at the end of the third month, I doubled it again.’
I suppose Rutherford can afford all of these raises due to him using social snobbery to persuade customers to buy his deliberately overcharged wares.
The characterisation in this mystery is strong. Attention is given to small roles, as well as the larger ones. George is one of the successes of the former camp. He is an expert on thrillers and apparently drives the shop van ‘despite his mild, almost insipid, exterior, with the wild abandon of the Valkyries rushing into battle.’ So maybe don’t lend him your car keys… However, you will never lose him in a crowd as his choice of leisure fashion certainly stands out: ‘Plum was his favourite coloured suiting and he loved boots that were not so much brown as a devastating yellow.’ Witting definitely paints a vivid picture!
Rutherford is also an amiable character to follow, and I loved the point in the inquest when he is mortified at the fact that the policeman being questioned mentions that his coat had a bad oil stain on the back:
‘That was a nasty one. It’s a bit thick when the disreputable old motoring coat, which you had decided was good enough for a night like that, is brought into the full glare of publicity at a coroner’s inquest!’
I feel like there is a relatable quality in sections such as this one.
Witting sets up his mystery well teasing the reader with puzzling pieces of information. How many policemen were out cycling that night? Was the weapon a truncheon? Why did the policeman take off his hat before the killer struck him? As the investigation unfolds the evidence found, can at times, create more mystification rather than clears things up. On the whole, I felt this was a multi-layered puzzle, with some good red herrings.
Overall, I would say this book has a police focused investigation and Rutherford is more of an accidental sleuth who becomes privy to what the police have uncovered. He does not strike out upon his own investigations, but he does hear pertinent information sometimes, which he passes on to the police. In some ways his role in the plot, aside from discovering the body at the start, is to become a target for a possible secondary murder. There is a growing suggestion that Rutherford might know something which would make the killer want to eliminate him too. Furthermore, Rutherford becomes more involved at the denouement.
So far, I have looked at many of the positives this tale has to offer, but now we come to the weaknesses. My main issue with this book is that it is too long. Initially this meandering is quite pleasant, but it does eventually become wearing, as Rutherford has many an inconsequential chat without any further useful information being elicited about the case. If you prefer a streamlined narrative, then this story might not be for you. In addition, there is one knowledge blind spot of Rutherford’s, which is meant to achieve a surprise, but instead lacks a lot of impact, due to off timing.
Whilst the evidence in the case is utilised well overall, there is one significant piece which I felt was used unfairly. The choice of murderer, initially to me, seemed a bit random. However, once I heard the full solution, I felt there were some small details which pointed in their direction. Yet I don’t think readers will be kicking themselves for not solving the mystery, as the cards are somewhat stacked against them. This is a shame as the piece of information Rutherford knows, which could get him bumped off, is praiseworthily sneaky and the nature of the final solution takes the policeman-as-victim plot in a different direction to the one Philip Macdonald takes in X v Rex (1933).