Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard – a reissued witty wartime mystery from British Library Crime Classics

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

A light hearted Second World War mystery sounds like a contradiction in terms, especially one set in London. This book is actually set in “the early days of the war, when air-raid wardens were thought funny” and published in 1943, when the outcome of the conflict was still uncertain. The author’s name is a pseudonym for a married couple, Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart, who wrote a portrait, thought to be at least slightly autobiographical, of a young married pair, Agnes and Andrew Kinghof. The discovery of a body in a badly constructed shelter sets off a series of events that has the couple racing around London and Warwickshire among other places to discover someone who has committed murder and is conducting a revolting campaign against an elderly neighbour. With an underground fascist group, a perceived danger from fire, gas and other challenges coming to London and a writer of girls’ school stories on the loose, Agnes has to deal with bad sherry and actual danger in finding the culprit.

Martin Edwards points out in his excellent Introduction to the recent British Library Crime Classics reissue of this rare novel that it is likely that Pamela wrote this book with her then husband providing the plot. Certainly the tone is light, with dialogue which is of its time and frequently funny. The relationship between the main couple is realistic and apparently unscathed by Andrew’s absences as a Captain in the army; there is a sense in which the worst of the war is not yet present, that military service is not yet dangerous, and “the phoney war” is a time of waiting for what may well never happen. It is intended to be entertainment for adults with elaborate practical jokes alongside a practice for dockside bombing  where Agnes insists on a particular spot in which to lie “injured”. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent “enjoyable, unserious book”.

The book opens with an air raid warden deciding to slip into an air raid shelter, described as too small to admit a larger person, adjacent to a block of flats one evening. Noting that the sand bags are already showing signs of having been there too long and emitting a nasty smell, he is surprised to discover a young woman sitting in the shelter, having locked herself out of one of the flats. After enjoying a companionable cigarette, the pair investigate a loose sandbag only to discover the decomposing face of a corpse. Referring to a previous mystery which was the subject of an earlier novel, the brave Agnes decides to seek a police officer, only to run into her husband, returning on an indefinite leave. After an elderly female neighbour has hysterics when a pig’s head appears at her window, Agnes and Andrew become drawn into a mystery which they are eager to solve, especially when it appears possible that the culprit for what becomes a series of pig related incidents is one of the few residents left in the block of flats.

This lively and entertaining novel is a real discovery in this series of books reissued over the last few years, combining a genuine mystery with the excitement of a couple discovering details that may reveal all. It is set in a fascinating period, when another war has begun but seems a distant concern rather than a present danger, and the author represents this with the rather lazy preparations for air raids. It has all the lightness of an adventure or puzzle, but with hints of far more important themes underlying it. The female characters are a mixed bunch, and Agnes is a really determined heroine, who regularly does damage to her clothes and safety in order to pursue the truth. I really recommend this novel as a witty social history observation of another time, of people dealing with an uncertain time.