He Died of Murder (1947) by Shelley Smith

A bit like my previous read, today’s book under review does not get any points for its choice of title. When it comes to a murder mystery, my response to this title is: He died of murder, no kidding Sherlock?! It feels like a redundant title, and it certainly struggles to grab one’s attention – but what about the story itself?

Collin Crime club (white circle pocket edition) cover for He Died of Murder by Shelley Smith. Colours are black, white and green.

Synopsis

‘The story opens when Master Titmarsh, head of the old religious community known as “The Seekers,” who devote themselves to farming and the simple life, is found murdered in one of the community’s fields. It is only after Detective-Inspector Chaos has moved in to live with the Brotherhood itself that he begins to glimpse the dangerous complexities and grim motives that seethe beneath the apparently placid surface of their lives.’

Overall Thoughts

Based on the dedication it would seem Shelley Smith got inspiration for the human setting of her book from real life: ‘For Elizabeth Cross To Remind her of the happy hours we spent with The Seekers of Abbot’s Beach’. A preliminary Google search did not yield any further information on the matter, so if anyone else knows anything about it do let me know. Interestingly, in the same year John Bude published Death Makes a Prophet, which makes me wonder if a contemporary real-life event had inspired them both.

Something I have pondered in various reviews in the past year is how effective is the opening of a given mystery or why did the writer choose character X to kick the narrative off, and I found myself doing this, with Shelley’s story. The exposition sees a Mr Chaos alighting from a train. He observes another train passenger, a woman named Valerie Post, dump a heavy suitcase into the arms of a 14-year-old girl called Ruby. The adolescent is then abandoned with the luggage as Valerie swans off with one of her beaus, a local headmaster. Naturally the teenager is annoyed, and she exclaims “Well, of all the dirty old cow!” At this point Mr Chaos remonstrates with Ruby and chastises her bad language and almost justifies the poor behaviour of the woman. Now anyone who has read the blurb above will know that Mr Chaos is actually Detective Inspector Chaos, a detail which is not revealed for some pages in the book to either the reader or other characters. It is not surprising to have a writer depict their sleuth arriving to solve a case, but I found Shelley’s choice of opening event intriguing. It doesn’t really put Chaos in a great light and even for a time arguably encourages the reader to be unsympathetic towards him. So why open your book that way?

The narrative then moves on to Chaos and Ruby attending the funeral of the murder victim, the former vaguely redeeming himself by carrying the suitcase. Chaos presumably does this to find out more about the locality and the people who could be involved in the case he is about to investigate. Yet Ruby is a questionable source of information as her adolescent viewpoint is quite immaturely myopic and her version of the inquest and its verdict or ‘vermin’ as she puts up is somewhat creative. In fact, I learnt that the phrase ‘lost gammon’ is descriptor for someone who lies. Again, I was left wondering why this younger character was chosen to launch the story and I am not sure I have any ready-made answers. Perhaps she is designed to misstep the reader with her less than accurate perceptions. Nevertheless, Ruby is an interesting character though, in that she is Valerie Post’s evacuee. Ruby’s dad was blown up during the war and her mother disappeared, so after WW2 she stayed with Valerie. This consequence of WW2 is not something I have really seen touched upon in classic crime fiction before.

Despite his rocky beginning, DI Chaos becomes a more palatable figure as the story progresses and I found his surname quite intriguing, as chaos seems like the antithesis of a sleuth’s purpose, which in traditional crime fiction is to restore order. Chaos’ approach to detective work is quite conversationally based and he is quite unbothered when people choose to lie:

“Fancy that, now,” said Mr. Chaos, quite forgetting to correct her language this time. “Why does that annoy you? I like nosy people; I’m rather nosy myself, as it happens. And I thought her very interesting.”

“Well, you don’t want to go believing all that stuff she says,” said Ruby sulkily. “It was all lies. She’s a norful liar!”

“Oh, I know,” said Mr. Chaos simply. “That’s what was so interesting, dear.”

I would say this is a character driven novel, yet underneath the dialogue I found that Shelley’s mystery does have a puzzle-based core, although it gets buried at times beneath the chatter. The victim was killed at close range in the middle of a three-acre field, a field which is overlooked by the windows for the rooms used for meditation time. Everyone claimed to be in their rooms at the time of the murder meditating. The bell to call everyone to meditation was broken and the victim’s watch was known to be slow, so it was likely they would be late getting to meditations. Moss is found inside the victim’s wound and interestingly no one’s evidence matches up. One suspect/witness claims to have seen a man near the victim before they fell, but no one believes them as there are no footprints in the soil. This type of mystery is more unusual for Shelley, based on the other stories I have read by her which seem to be more psychology and suspense based. For this to have been a really good book I think the puzzle aspect would needed to have been more prominent than they were. The murder method was far more intricate than I expected it to be, but this only really comes out in the detective’s summing up.

An easy track for writers to follow when they choose to have a religious figure as victim, is to reveal a whole host of skeletons in their past which shows how awful they were. This path has been so well trodden that I would say it is something of a cliché. However, it was pleasing to see that Shelley sidesteps this overused trope quite a bit, providing some more unusual motives for murder. Moreover, although one salacious piece of information about the victim does emerge, the other characters treat it in a very matter of fact way and are unfazed by it.

The weakest part of the novel is the denouement as the narrative suddenly switches into the first person, with Detective Inspector Chaos detailing to no one in particular (as it is not a letter for instance) the clues he found and the progression of his theories. We then have another switch to a written confession from the killer himself. I felt this was an inferior structural choice, as it lacked drama and flair. I wondered if the switch had been made due to space restrictions. Regardless, it does not work well.

So, this read was a mixture of positives and negatives, which is something that comes across in The Criminal Record’s review of it: ‘Odd personalities belonging to “Brotherhood of seekers” supply colour, if not movement, to well-written, acceptably plotted and occasionally tedious puzzler […] Slow-paced but satisfying’

Rating: 4/5

See also: There is also a review of this title on Mystery*File.

P. S. Some wallpaper in the book is described as ‘petulant’. Can anyone tell me what makes a wallpaper be petulant? lol

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