Midsummer Murder by Clifford Witting – an clever murder mystery from 1937 now reprinted

Midsummer Murder by Clifford Witting

I know this is not really a novel for early autumn judging by the title alone. It’s actually not about tropical settings or a heat wave – just long sunny days where many things can happen – and mysteries abound.

 This novel is in some senses an extraordinary achievement. It is a sort of locked area murder mystery when that area is in full public view. It is a novel first published in 1937, now republished by Galileo Publishers as they work through the novels of Clifford Witting and his recurring investigator, Detective Inspector Charlton. This is a stand-alone book in which the resourceful Police officer is tested in every way as he tries to solve a murder committed in the full sight of a market day crowd in the country town of Paulsfield, a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire. It manages to combine what is now a well-drawn picture of market town life in the 1930s with a Golden Age Mystery thriller featuring a well-established set of police officers in charge of a apparently motiveless murder investigation. It is a complex situation which develops after the first killing, but it is blended and grounded in town life with memorable characters including an officious Hall caretaker, a nervous shopkeeper with sisters, an ambitious photographer and a capable author.  I enjoyed it for the picture of life at the time as well as the mystery, which is memorable as it develops, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this reprinted novel.

The book opens with a market day scene. People are bustling around seeking bargains, and sellers of every variety and type are offering their wares from shops, stalls and all manner of structures. Apart from the many people intent on their own business in the square, there is a full compliment of animals being offered for sale, including a bull who are one minute to midday escapes, threatening bystanders and imperilling the stalls, organ grinders and the myriad of people nearby. In the background, drilling of the road has been contributing to the noise and confusion. In the middle of the square a solitary figure has been methodically cleaning a statue, ignoring the noise and distraction, until he falls, shot dead, in silence. As Charlton and his officers realise that a murder has taken place, closing the public and busy space becomes a priority so that no one leaves, but is soon becomes clear that it will be difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  Charlton and his men are left with the mystery of a man who seems to be an unlikely target, killed in full public view, by a single bullet from one of a certain number of vantage points.

One of the things that made this book stand out for me is the detailed investigations that Charlton manages to make as there are further attacks. He encounters an older lady who has an incredible filing system which gives precise details of most of the local residents. He is thus able to discover a great deal about the victim. He is given access to several of the buildings which overlook the square by a caretaker who has many of his own theories to present. Charlton is also able to consult a Captain Harmon who is an early ballistics expert. Witting devotes a lot of space to his investigations which he shares with Charlton, and I think it is a fascinating insight into the early methods adopted by police and others to identify weapons involved in crime.

This is a remarkable book for its calm treatment of multiple murders against the background of a small community. I enjoyed the characters and the details of life at the time as well as the somewhat perilous investigation undertaken by the solid character of Inspector Charlton. It provides a valuable insight into life in Britain in the mid-1930s as well as an unusual murder mystery, and as such is a valuable and fascinating reprint.

This review first appeared on https://shinynewbooks.co.uk/midsummer-murder-by-clifford-witting last month

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