This 1934 novel, recently reissued in the popular British Library Crime Classic series, is written with the “light touch” that the debut author was aiming for, and is consequently a funny, clever and perhaps fanciful mystery. Murder is not the first problem, but jewellery, its theft and collection, becomes very much a theme of this book. Violence is done, and not all the characters survive the weekend in the country. This is a collection of characters typical of many a Golden Age detection novel, but the execution of the plot is far from straightforward in any sense. Engaging characters, a far from sensible hero, and this almost farcical novel is entertaining and satisfying in many ways. I was very pleased to receive a review copy of this book, and enjoyed it immensely.
Jim Henderson is a survivor of the First World War, left intact physically and mentally, but living in reduced circumstances despite his gentlemanly upbringing. His landlady, Mrs. Bertram, is always full of the latest news and gossip, but is touchingly surprised when he is whisked off in a shiny big car by his friend Freddie Usher for a weekend in the country. A mysterious Mr. Carson has invited both young men, together with four other people, for fishing, shooting and most appealing, free food. The newly refurbished house is set in an island of pine trees, but despite its isolation it is not long before Jim and Freddie make the acquaintance of Mary, a young woman with her own reasons for pursing investigations. Soon suspicious discoveries, the disturbance of a female guest, and nocturnal activities of an unknown quantity lead to the growing realisation that Mr Carson and his butler maybe motivated by more than just hospitality. Even a local cat is far from safe. The whole tale rattles along in a most satisfactory way, and the eventual ending sees justice for all.
This book is accomplished for a debut novel, and some of the elements recall Wodehouse as the hapless hero and his companions try to sort out the situation. There is even one character who would qualify as an honorary “Aunt”. It is also good to see a female character filling a larger role than just the victim or witness, as at least two women have their own plans to remedy the situation. Like the other two Melville books republished by British Library Crime Classics, “Open Curtain” and “Death of Anton”, this novel is quick moving and funny. If this novel is over dependent on coincidence, such is the wit and confidence of the writing that it is forgiven. If you like your crime fiction classic, yet far from serious and graphic, this is an excellent choice. I really enjoyed the unlikely scenario, the sly digs at the classic country house mystery, and the character of Jim, who finds out what he is really capable of when in an incredible situation.
There are so many excellent Crime Classics being republished over the next few months that it will be a full time job to keep up with them!