This mystery has been on my TBR pile for a while, so it felt like a good time to bring it up to the top of the stack. I first came across this author via the British Library Crime Classics series when they reprinted The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955), back in 2020. It was a novel I took to from the off and was pleased when the British Library went on to reprint The Widow of Bath (1952), last year. This being me I was not content to wait for further reprints, so I scoured the internet and acquired two more books by Bennett. The first was Someone from the Past (1958) and the second is today’s read.
‘John Davies, veteran, and would-be detective, wrote to many friends asking where he could get experience. He received only one relevant reply. Della Mortimer wrote, “I haven’t been murdered, but may be. A woman named death has been leaving visiting cards. I don’t know her and I don’t want to.” Davies decided to treat this cryptic note as an invitation, and before he was fairly settled in Della’s menage, an Australian adventuress of rather full-blown charms was found murdered in a neighbour’s house. There were a variety of colourful suspects, and a recalcitrant cow and a pesky wasp were prime factors in the case. Davies and the local constabulary worked on the case with equal interest, but exchanged information only after some rather unsubtle bribery.’
If, like me, you enjoy the work of Delano Ames or Edmund Crispin, then you might find the opening lines enticing: ‘It is difficult to become a private detective: the only recognised way is to be a friend of the corpse. My friends were disobliging.’ The use of the first person and the metafictional tinge to the humour certainly gave the beginning an Ames vibe. However, I don’t think this tone is maintained. Whilst the story has its’ moments of comedy and its’ amusing turns of phrase, it does not have a maverick or zany plot, nor larger than life humour. There is only one other major metafictional passage in the story, which occurs later in the book:
‘I wanted to think things over. I seemed to spend a great deal of time thinking. If I had been a deerstalker detective I should have deduced everything swiftly without mental exertion; if I had been scientific I would have crept about the village with my manservant, instructing him to shake grey powder on the various Bantrys’ door handles; and myself labelling the test tubes in which I kept the cigarette ends; if I had been an American detective I would have sat still, waiting for the case to break. There might have been several more murders, but when the case did break, the pieces would be in my hands. but if I had been an American I might have had to shoot people myself, I should certainly have been knocked out several times. On the whole, I preferred my own line: careful thought and delicate action.’
I felt this passage was something of a sendup of the hardboiled crime fiction style of writing, as it is this subgenre which is commented upon the most, and in a partially backhanded manner. This change in humour is not a bad thing, but I thought it useful for readers to know what to expect as the opening paragraph suggests more of an Ames novel, which is then not realised.
Those who enjoy mysteries set during WW2, will find this an engaging story for the social details it includes. John Davies, our sleuthing protagonist, is discharged from the army, after being shot in the lungs and in the opening chapter we become acquainted with the limited public transport, as well as the Barrow household Della Mortimer lives at. Mrs Carter, Hector Barrow’s mistress, has several evacuated mothers and children living with them as well as in other properties nearby. It is suggested she likes to acquire people, in the way other people acquire pets or stamps and she is an excellent example of a difficult philanthropic person (a character type we see quite a bit in classic crime fiction). She is keen to take in Blitz refugees but the living conditions of the places she gives them are so appalling that all but one family have fled by the start of the novel, fearing the bombs less than the squalor. The Preddle family, are the only ones remaining, who loathe the derelict cottage they are in, but are too apathetic and weak willed to move away. Other well intentioned war efforts that didn’t quite come off, are also mentioned in the narrative, and I found this aspect of the story interesting, as it is a side to, or even a critique of, the Home Front that we don’t normally see.
Death strikes quick in the story. John Davies only has time to briefly become acquainted with the key local inhabitants and to learn more about the “Death Cards” plaguing the district, before shots are fired, and he is left with one fatality and one casualty. The crime set up is interesting as the woman who dies is dressed in the clothes of the man who is wounded miles way and she is sitting in his house. Figuring out the connection between the two events is a good part of the novel’s puzzle.
Her careful delineation of character and her well-phrased prose style are two of Bennett’s strengths and I have found them present in all of the books I have read by her. For example, in this mystery, I loved the way she described a moody teenager named Jean: ‘At present, adolescence sat on her shoulders like a badly cut coat.’ It’s a short description but one which creates an instant mental image. A retired actress who is not big on hygiene also got several good descriptions including:
‘Paula and Forsyth still stood on the porch, watching, waiting or fearing. Paula had introduced an unsuitable note by fetching her knitting, an enormous swathe of dirty white., rather like a dead sheep: what it was destined to be no man and few women could have told.’
Unlike a Ngaio Marsh novel there is not much in the way of immediate amateur or police investigation, on page, for the evening of the crimes, but by chapter 4 both sides are busy. One of the more unusual aspects of the investigative work are the attempts made to bust the alibi of a man who states he was milking a cow, at the time of the shootings; a cow that seemingly cannot be milked by any other person, due to her violent nature. Speaking of creatures, wasps also take on an unusual, but meaningful, role in the mystery.
I enjoyed the interaction between John and one of the police officers, Sergeant Partridge, who share information in a tit for tat manner. Although this is a character driven mystery, John brings out at various stages interesting points about the case, conclusions we could have drawn as well, as we had access to the same information. This book is not for the puzzle fanatic, but it is not without questions to answer and clues to find. Furthermore, unusually readers also have the results of an amateur psychology test to look at. The friendly, unspoken rivalry between John and the Sergeant also added to my enjoyment of the book:
‘I found Sergeant Partridge the most disquieting feature of the case. I had counted on the police being efficient, well-organised, and unimaginative. I had expected them to dig up the facts that only industry could produce; I had even expected them to make deductions. I had not expected to find in their ranks a man who competed with me in the casual approach, who seemed interested in people and everything they said, who was so obviously an inefficient policeman that everyone inclined to treat him sympathetically. He was my rival.’
It remains uncertain, until the end, which side will figure out the solution to the case. So all in all this was an entertaining read with more reader thinking power required than you first realise. The synopsis to the Doubleday Crime Club edition concludes with the assertion that Bennett’s book, ‘compared with the ordinary mystery […] is as plum pudding to toast.’ Make of that what you will! There’s certainly the odd fruity character or two…