Dead on Time (1948) by Clifford Witting

It has been over a year since I last read a novel by Witting and below are the titles I have reviewed so far:

As you can see my experiences with Witting’s work have varied, some being better than others. Yet somehow, he finds a way of drawing me back in, wanting to give him another go.

Dead on Time by Clifford Witting.

Synopsis

‘The scene is The Blue Boar in the High Street, Lulverton. The occasion: the stag party planned to celebrate Sergeant Bert Martin’s retirement after thirty years’ service. ‘It was good while it lasted,’ said Bert, putting down his empty tankard with a reflective sigh. ‘Bein’ in the Force, I mean. Lookin’ back over the long vista of the years…’ But Bert had still until midnight before Bradfield was due to step into his shoes. At nine twenty-five Jimmy Hooker was still very much alive, if a little the worse for wear, when he barged in on the party in the upstairs room. At closing time he was dead in the saloon. “And I don’t think,’ said ‘Pop’ Collins, licensee of the Blue Boar, ‘that it was in the way of nature.”’

Overall Thoughts

One reason I think I keep coming back for more with Witting is that he knows how to create a strong opening, as is the case in this story where we have a simple but compellingly delivered hook. This comes in the form of a drunken pedlar and ad-hoc police informant called Jimmy Hooker. He intrudes upon the retirement party to pass on some information, but a rebuke from the superintendent changes his mind and he leaves having shared nothing. Minutes later, downstairs in the bar, he is dead of poisoning. This is a classic opening gambit and one that Witting uses to good effect.

This mystery comes complete with a map of the pub the first death occurs in, which always makes for a good start to a book. It is also very useful in this instance as the novel refers to the map at several points and I found it helped me to make sense of the written descriptions which were a bit boggling.

We get a little of Witting’s humour centred on human nature in this mystery, although not as much as we get in other titles. Here is one example though:

‘The average Briton always has the fear that, if he goes to the assistance of a drunken man, an uncharitable world will immediately decide that he is no good Samaritan, but the despicable cad who got the poor, weak fellow into such a disgusting condition. Out of the kindness of his heart a respectable citizen may have been helping some intoxicated stranger up his garden path when the front door has been opened by the inebriated gentleman’s wife. The average Briton seldom does that a second time.’

This is a policeman focused mystery with their investigation involving multiple police officers and their differing styles and personalities made the interviews and police work more interesting. I would say that the police figures are more the focus than the suspects/witnesses in this novel. In other Witting novels I have read I felt like we started off and spent more time with, the witness and suspect characters. This helped the reader to get to know them better. However, in today’s mystery because we spend so much time with the police, it feels like we were looking at the suspects from the outside in.

Furthermore, in comparison to other Witting novels, Dead on Time, seems to steer more into character stereotypes when it comes to the suspects and witnesses. This becomes problematic occasionally, such as with ‘Ada of the Adenoids’, a barmaid who is unflatteringly talked about in the following passage:

‘In the execution of his duties, Peter Bradfield had often been called upon to play the gallant to serving wenches, in order to wheedle scraps of information out of them, but, as he declared afterwards, he would have stopped at Ada. He was ready to make sacrifices in the cause of justice, but… not Ada.’

To me, this felt below the belt and just plain unkind, rather than humorous. Those who have read more by Witting than me, might be better judges of this, but I also felt that this type of rudeness was out of keeping with Witting’s normal style.

Moving back to the plot, I thought Witting did a good job of maintaining reader interest in the case. This is partially achieved by the case expanding from its initial focus of the poisoning of Hooker. That said figuring out how and when the poison was administered is not straight forward. I would say this story has a solid police investigation. The police have a hunch that certain characters are behind the crimes, a hunch that the narrative confirms for the reader independently. The novel is therefore a case of waiting for the police to prove their hunch is correct – bit by bit as they figure out the mechanism and timetable of each crime. This felt different to other Witting novels that I have read, although the thriller elements in the finale are quite typical of Witting’s work. The cat and mouse element in this denouement also resonates with Witting’s earlier novel, Midsummer Murder. The unveiling of the solution is a multi-pronged task, which is unfolded across several stages. There is one Interesting red herring, but I am unsure how fairly clued one aspect of the solution is.

Rating: 4/5

See also: The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and Nick at The Grandest Game in the World have also reviewed this title.

4 comments

  1. I read this one about a year ago. Looking at my notes, I find this:

    “Oh, that’s right, Clifford Witting is the author who likes to compare
    people to seals”:
    He got out of his chair and made for the door with the grace of an
    insulted sea-lion.

    Liked by 1 person

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