Measure for Murder by Clifford Witting – a clever and compelling murder mystery from 1941 republished by Galileo Publishers
Measure for Murder by Clifford Witting
This is a clever and compelling novel that is set in 1939 as War begins, was originally published in 1941 and was republished in 2021 by Galileo Publishers in Cambridge. I am so pleased it was! Several of Clifford Witting’s books have been reappearing recently, and I have been enjoying and reviewing them. This one has so much on offer: a wartime setting, a mysterious murder victim, a drama group in crisis, and lots of references to one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, “Measure for Measure”. Not that you need to know the play – it is not often produced – but it added to my enjoyment of this surprising and well written murder mystery with many elements. There is comedy of a gentle sort, a well- constructed plot and an impressive setting of a small theatre and a boarding house full of interesting characters. The characters also represent a good range of interwar classics, from the very observant narrator to the somewhat feckless assistant, the dramatic women and the helpful landlady. I found it a very engaging read and enjoyed its surprises and Witting’s skilful writing.
The Prologue to the novel is actually set in January 1940 when a careful cleaning lady, Mrs Mudge, discovers a body in the Little Theatre in Lulverton, a country town with the usual mixed community of business people, travellers, and others. For those who like to visualise the setting of a story, a diagram of the theatre is provided. More unusually, the body is not identified to the reader until some way into the novel. The narrative reverts to the story of Vaughan Tudor, who recounts how he comes to live in Lulverton as a guest or permanent resident in Mrs. Doubleday’s establishment while starting his own small business. He gives details of the other residents, and how the Lulverton Amateur Dramatic Society began among a group of friends. They are fortunate to obtain premises to meet and indeed put on performances to a small audience. Then follows an account of how they put on plays, and the personalities that must be pushed, placated and persuaded to assemble a suitable cast. The group enjoys some success, though has challenges to face which may be familiar to anyone who has experience of amateur drama. Meanwhile Tudor’s business prospers and he encounters an old school friend who needs a job and accommodation. Politically the world becomes darker, and as War is actually declared many of the characters begin to reassess their priorities.
It is worth noting that when this novel was first written and published the Second World War was continuing and nobody really knew what would happen in the longer term. I particularly enjoy books set at this time when the author is writing for an audience desperate for entertainment. I enjoyed the Shakespeare references and the element of commentary from the classical drama figures, which I thought added real depth to the story. I thought the characters were extremely well drawn, with the theme of romance very much of its time. The murder mystery is well set up, with many possible theories being suggested and a suitable list of potential suspects being lined up. Inspector Charlton, Witting’s usual investigator, is once more drawn into the case, with his trusty assistant Detective Sergeant Martin, and having read other Witting novels I was pleased to reacquaint myself with his thoughtful techniques. This is a novel which plays with the form and content of the classic murder mystery to great effect, and I recommend it as a strong read of detection and action in a well-drawn setting with excellent characters.