I was unboxing some of my books and I came across this one and deducing from the oh so subtle book cover design, that it was a Christmas mystery, I decided to make this my next read. It might just be me, but I found it a little disconcerting to read a novel by Ferrars, so late into the 20th century, when she began writing detective stories in the 1940s. I don’t commonly read 1990s mysteries, but for an author I enjoy I make an exception. Today’s read is the 6th out of 8 books, in Ferrars’ Andrew Basnett series, which she began publishing in 1983. I have read one other book in this series, Root of All Evil (1984), which I enjoyed. It is interesting how over the course of her career, Ferrars initially spent a few years writing the Toby Dyke series, before switching heavily over to writing non-series mysteries for the next three decades, only to later in her life start two new series, the other being the Virginia and Felix Freer series. Was this a response to changing literary markets? Why was there such a draw to writing non-series titles?
As you can see from the blurb below, there are indicators of the changing times, in particular the bomb murder method, which is not a very classic crime modus operandi. Yet the blurb, I feel, also focuses on the puzzle aspect of the plot, via its questioning.
‘Andrew Basnett, retired Professor of Botany, did not care for Christmas. Not for him the holly and the ivy, the turkey and trimmings. He preferred to spend it with likeminded friends the Cahills in the peace of their country home. But peace and goodwill were not to be. The day before Christmas Eve their neighbour, Sir Lucas Dearden, QC (retired), was blown up by a bomb. There were many who had it in for him, and one suspicious character had even inquired for him at the Cahills’. But Sir Lucas had intended spending Christmas with his married daughter in London and had changed his plans at the last minute only because she had been involved in an accident. No one knew he was returning to Berkshire. Had the bomb been meant for someone else? Andrew found himself caught up in the complex relationships of the QC’s family and Jonathan Cahill. When one of them was also murdered, it posed a number of questions. Whose account of their relationships and their Christmas activities was to be believed? And why had Sir Lucas so carefully destroyed one page of his memoirs? By the time Andrew returned thankfully to London he had the answers to all his questions – and rather wished he hadn’t.’
Andrew Basnett is an elderly amateur sleuth, in his mid-70s and he seems to have been crafted along the lines of Miss Marple in the way he observes things and how people tend to be more open around him. This sense is heightened by the type of murder he is investigating and the milieu he is operating in. This is the sort of murder designed for Miss Marple to solve as it is very much focused on what people say about themselves and others, which the text asseverates: ‘The solution to what had happened would probably be found in what a small group of people had to say about one another.’ I would say there is another strong Christie link to the book, but since it counts as a spoiler, I have detailed it at the end of my review in ROT13 code.
There are a number of interesting social details in the story. The first is Ferrars’ brief and non-rose-tinted look at adult friendships:
‘Andrew had been touched too by the friendship which had continued even after he had retired and could no longer be of any use to anybody. Yet friends, as he had learnt years ago when his wife Nell had died of cancer and he had been left to learn to endure loneliness, were apt to forget you for most of the year but felt extraordinary distress at the thought that you might be left to survive Christmas alone. The Cahills were of that order. He generally visited them only once a year, and this was always at Christmas.’
This section also reminded me of Celia Fremlin and her mystery, The Long Shadow (1975), in which Fremlin in more detail looks at how widowers are awkwardly treated socially most of the year until Christmas when everyone decides you need them to take over your house for the holidays.
The second social detail was Basnett gifting a book token to Jonathan Cahill. I hadn’t really thought about when book tokens were invented but it seems it was as early as 1932, when the National Book Tokens were introduced. I think the way they keep their brand image up to date has probably meant they do not come across as archaic gifts. However, in 1990 there were some qualms about giving someone book tokens:
‘He had brought a bottle of Glenlivet for Colin, a box of chocolates for Dorothea and a book token for Jonathan. The book token, Andrew felt, had been a serious failure of imagination on his part, but although he had known Jonathan since his childhood, he really knew very little about him now and had no idea what sort of gift might truly appeal to him. A book token seemed safe.’
This is a sentiment which I think still lurks even in the present day, although I know there has been much advertising to counteract it.
Smoke without Fire is not a long book, only 183 pages, so it doesn’t hang around, dropping its bomb at the end of chapter one and following on from that we see the suspects/witnesses talk the possibilities through. This is a dialogue heavy mystery, but Ferrars is good at making it entertaining and she includes sufficient variety of discussion topics, such as the reading of the memoir, so that the characters aren’t left circling around the same small points. New incidents also add more fuel to the conversational fire. The police work mostly off the page, but they don’t have hidden information, undisclosed to the reader, so this works okay.
My hunch about culprit was correct, my attention being drawn to a particular character due to an early behavioural clue. I think there is a bit of a jump in the plot to reach the solution stage of the mystery and whilst Basnett’s solution is a good one and makes sense, part of me wonders how he ended up with all the clues to solve the case. The ending feels rushed and there is an odd jarring note when we see various characters being comfortable giving the culprit a chance to escape. It felt jarring as the crime was a purely selfish one, so it is hard to see the killer’s actions in a sympathetic light. I wouldn’t say this is Ferrars’ strongest outing, but it was still a very enjoyable, easy read. It would be ideal reading after consuming too much Christmas turkey or one too many mince pies.
Rating: 3.75/5 (Plot) 4/5 (Characters and writing style)
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