Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate A British Library Crime Classic
This recent murder mystery from the British Library crime classic series is a grim reminder that life on the Home Front in the Second World War was not glamorous for most people. Raymond Postgate had written a successful novel, “The Verdict of Twelve”, which looked through the biographies of the characters rather than just their relationship with the crime. Whether a result of his socialist interests or his journalist experience, he was far more interested in the people who may have been guilty or innocent rather than the complications of a plot. In this novel he painstakingly describes the background of each of the main suspects and victim beyond the discoveries made by the police detective Inspector Holly, and each story has an element of sorrow or loss shaped by the events of the early 1940s. Nobody really emerges as a likable character, least of all the victim.
Councillor Grayling is a deeply unpopular man and victim. He has ambitions to be a great man in his community and home, but cannot achieve anything, it is suggested, without bullying and blackmail. His wife dislikes him, the Vicar, who is a sad man in his personality and role, suspects him of corruption, and provides information of the victim’s last journey home by train. He describes how others sat round him in the carriage and exhibited symptoms of a miserable cold. Grayling had enemies in that carriage of both a personal and business nature; consequently Holly discovers that he has several credible suspects with reasonable motives. The tone is sombre, and there appears to be desperation all around, even if most of the characters are not in actual danger from the fighting. The method of killing is particularly grisly, and could only be carried out in wartime, which adds to the background of grey misery.
I actually found this a really interesting and intriguing book. The plot is almost secondary to the almost short story approach to each character, which reveals more than strictly necessary to potential involvement in the murder. Consequently this is not a mystery to read quickly because of the plot and the need to find the guilty person; I found each character’s story well written and providing a fascinating insight into everyday life in wartime. This is not a cheerful read but a well written novel of people in all their weaknesses. As a snapshot of the times it is a deeply atmospheric book with some strong images and rather world weary reality. Martin Edwards’ introduction refers to the “dark days of the Second World War” as the background of this 1943 book, and calls Postgate “a talented … amateur rather than a seasoned professional”. This is a fair assessment of an sensitive book of the era.