I saw the name of Elizabeth Ferrars on the spine of a green Penguin, and it rang a distant bell. I’d read a few of her books, years ago when the only crime writer I knew was Agatha Christie and I was looking around to see who else I might like.
As I recall I’d liked her enough to pick up a few of her books from the library, but she slipped from my mind when she fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves.
I picked up Murder in Time, not really thinking it might be a book to buy, just to place the author. But when I read the synopsis I was intrigued, I saw similarities with a very famous crime novel, but I saw differences too.
“Nothing could sound more innocently gay – or fantastically extravagant – than a flight on a specially chartered plane for a week-end in Nice. But most of the people whom Mark Auty invited suspected some sinister intention. why, then, did they accept? For accept they did, coming from such far-removed places as a pub on the edge of Dartmoor, a Bloomsbury hotel, a quiet Oxfordshire village, a Soho night-club, to gather for the journet in Mark’s Surrey home. Why Mark really asked them and why they accepted are questions that are only answered in full after murder has intervened …”
I was to discover that, fourteen years after Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then there Were None,’ Elizabeth Ferrars took the same starting point and did something entirely different with it.
First she introduced her guests, dropping in on them in their own homes as they consider whether to accept that extraordinary invitation. An elderly woman, pacing, chain-smoking, as her son offers counsel. A blustering publican, whose pretty young wife, so used to getting her own way, is having trouble persuading her husband to accept. A middle-class couple, whose comfortable morning routine has been shattered by contents of the intriguing envelope that the postman delivered.
The portraits are beautifully drawn, the characters are clearly set out, but their stories are so clearly untold. And from start to finish, the writing, the characterisation, the storytelling, are all pitch perfect.
The scene switches, sharply. A young woman sees a man mown down by a car on a London street. it looked like an accident, but she had caught sight of the driver. It was deliberate. Murder.
Sarah tells the police what she has seen and then, still deeply shocked, turns to go home. She walks straight into Mark Auty. Their paths had crossed during the war, when she was his driver. He sees her distress, listens to her story, walks her home, takes time to make sure she is alright. And then he invites her to join his house party.
She is tempted, but it seems so strange. Mark explains why he is holding the party, why he wants her there, and that tips the balance. She accepts.
A strange house-party gathers. And then there is another, audacious, murder.
The police investigate. The guests talk about what has happened, they tell their stories – or in some cases have their stories drawn out of them. But it was difficult to know who was telling the truth, how the facts would fit together. As new facts emerged I changed my mind about what might have happened, about what was truth and what was lie. I had an idea, but I couldn’t make all the pieces fit.
And in the end I don’t think Elizabeth Ferrars quite succeeded in fitting them together. I was happy with the answers to the questions about Mark Auty. there were a couple of loose ends, but by and large things made sense. But I was a little less happy with the answers to the questions about the murders. The logic worked but the psychology was a bit of a stretch.
Just one little weakness in an excellent piece of crime writing: an intriguing mix of traditional, country house mystery with something a little darker, a little more modern, all rooted in real history.
It’s very clever, there are some lovely touches, and I’d love to write more, but I can’t without giving too much away.
I wonder if Elizabeth Ferrars has written anything else as good …
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
So next week, F is for … ?