I was dazzled by The Poisoned Chocolates Case last year, and that made me want to track down Anthony Berkeley’s other works. They proved elusive. I spotted a couple of green Penguins in a shop window one evening, but they disappeared before I could get there in opening hours. I spotted some lovely reissues from The Langtail Press, but an order will have to wait until I secure a new job. Finally occurred to me to check the library catalogue and I found two books.
I ordered Not To Be Taken first.
A very different book. A more conventional golden age village mystery, but a mystery with the same intelligence and flair that endeared Anthony Berkeley to me the first time I met him.
“It is a queer feeling to reconstruct the past and bring the dead to life again in all the trivial details of everyday life, but I must try to do so if I am to fill in a full background for the picture which I have set myself to paint. And perhaps all of the details were not so trivial either. Or alternatively, if they were genuinely trivial, efforts were to be made later to give them a sinister ring. In either case I will set then down exactly as they happened.”
That picture is painted, and painted extremely well.
First there is the setting. The mid 1930s, Annypenny, a classical English country village in Dorset, not far from the border with Somerset. I could see it.
And then there is the cast. A very interesting and well-balanced group of six friends and neighbours. A social set, and i was very interested to look over their shoulders.
First is the narrator, the speaker of those words. Douglas Sewell is a fruit farmer, and every inch the English country gentleman. But is he reliable?
His marriage to Frances, an intelligent and capable woman, seems happy and their life is comfortable. But is that just a facade?
And then there is John Waterhouse, their nearest neighbour. A man with intelligence, practical skills and a spirit of adventure, he had travelled the world. He settled in Annypenny to please his wife. But has he really settled?
Angela. She had hated trailing around the world in her husband’s wake. Angela is an invalid, but nobody seems to know quite what is wrong with her, and she does seem to rather enjoy having other running about to do her bidding. Does she enjoy it rather too much?
Glen Brougham, the village doctor, is Douglas’s oldest friend. A warm and open man, he holds his position because it is what his family have always done. But is he really up to the job?
His unmarried sister Rhona is probably a better medic, having picked up so much from her father and her brother, she just lacks the professional qualification. But that shouldn’t prevent her from helping out, should it?
A wonderful, three-dimensional cast offering up so many possibilities.
The plot builds on them beautifully.
Soon John is on the road to recovery, but suddenly he takes a turn for the worse, and dies.
A tragic death. A man who had thought he was indestructible, who didn’t take his doctor’s concerns seriously.
Angela pleads frailty, helplessness, and her friends step into the breach to arrange the funeral, to do everything that needed to be done.
She neglects to mention that John had a brother. His friends had no idea, and so Cyril only learns of his brother’s death after he has been buried.
Cyril doesn’t believe that Angela forgot, or that his brother died a natural death. He insists on exhumation, and a post-mortem.
The post-mortem reveals that John was poisoned.
There is consternation. Conversations and incidents are recalled. papers are examined and secrets uncovered.
And then there is an inquest. Of corse there is much drama, and more revelations before a verdict is reached. Murder by person or persons unknown.
But Douglas thinks he knows who killed John. And how. And why.
But what should he do about it … ?
Anthony Berkeley unfolds this plot perfectly. It twists and turns beautifully, offering up so many details, so many possibilities, so many new details of characters. I changed my mind, re-thought things so many times.
It helped, of course, I believed. The characters, their actions, their conversations all rang true.
The ending baffled me, but when I read it for a second time it made sense.
A perfectly constructed mystery concluded most satisfactorily.
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
So next week, O is for … ?