"People didn’t celebrate that victory hysterically, as for some reason or other the newspapers liked to make out. What the newspapers showed was only a bubble on the huge surface of the town. Like himself, Miles Hammond thought, most people were apathetic because they could not think of it as real. But something awoke, deep down inside human beings’ hearts, when the cricket results crept back into the papers and the bunks began to disappear from the Underground. Even peace time institutions like the Murder Club...”
A very British crime story set in post-war London. John Dickson Carr delivers this locked room mystery starring Carr's detective character Dr Gideon Fell, neatly, almost surgically, as we follow a few days in the life of Miles Hammond, the principal character of the book.
Hammond served in the war, but spent much of it incapacitated through diesel oil poisoning. During the war he found out that his Uncle Charles had died, leaving his whole estate to Miles and his sister Marion. In particular, that means that they now have a large house in the New Forest, which also contains
Uncle Charles’ extensive library. Not now needing to work, Miles (who is also a Nobel Prize-winning historian), has taken on the task of putting the books in
He is down in London to interview a candidate as a temporary librarian to assist with the task. And while in town, why not attend a gathering of the Murder Club, as guest of his good friend Dr Gideon Fell ? The Murder Club is an invitation-only soirée in a Soho restaurant where a small number of participants gets together to try and solve real-life murder conundrum brought by one of the guests.
Tonight it is the turn of Professor Rigaud, and his brilliant tale of the murder of Howard Brooke in 1939 near Chartres, a French town 60km south of Paris.
Mr Brooke lived there with his wife Georgina and son Harry (in his early
twenties). Family concern about Harry, as he wants (whimsically in his parents’eyes) to go and study painting in Paris rather than take over the family leather business.
And then there is Fay Seton.
The young attractive English secretary hired by Howard Brooke, and with whom Harry inevitably falls in love and gets engaged to. Malicious rumours about Fay Seton around the village. Together with some altogether more sinister gossip about her:
“In Slavonic lands popular folkore credits the vampire with existence merely as an animated corpse: that is, a being confined to its coffin by day and emerging only after nightfall for its prey. In Western Europe, notably in France, the vampire is a demon, living outwardly a normal life in the community, but capable during sleep or trance of projecting its soul in the form of straw or spinning mist to take visible shape.”
Professor Rigaud was a neighbour and friend of the Brookes, and recounts the dreadful day that Howard Brooke was murdered, at the top of an old, forty-foot tower (the “Tour Henri Quatre”) on his estate. The tower borders on one side straight down to the River Eure. A sheer drop. Professor Rigaud had left Brooke unhurt and in good health at ten minutes to four at the top of the tower. His death was timed at between five past and ten past four.
Stabbed in the back by his own sword-cane. A briefcase containing 2,000 francs missing. Brooke had withdrawn the money and had been due to meet Fay Seton (to pay her off not to marry his son ??) at the top of the tower. Harry in a panic for some reason, and then sent to the tower by his mother who had felt something awful was happening. Fay Seton out for a swim in the river. Several fragments of rock detached from the tower on the river side.
Yet crucially, it was established that nobody could possibly have been with Howard Brooke during the time when he was stabbed.
Back to the Murder Club, and a number of unanswered questions there too.
In particular, none of the regular members turned up that evening. So Professor Rigaud (much to his chagrin) has been recounting his story to the only two people who did come: Miles Hammond, and a young lady called Barabara Morell, also an invitee of a member. Indeed, Miles’ good friend Dr Gideon Fell, has not attended.
The plot thickens, as they say, the next day when Miles meets his interview candidate for the librarian role. Yes, you guessed it: Fay Seton, just arrived in England. Miles, just like Harry Brooke before him, is intrigued. There is some inexplicable quality about this woman. On the way back from London, Miles shares a train with his sister Marion, and her fiancé, the slightly plain, straight-laced Steve Curtis. He tells them the Marion and Steve the Murder Club tale of Professor Rigaud, the amazing coincidence of Fay Seton, and of his intention to hire her. Steve, in particular, is most resistant.
But Miles is persistent, and Fay is appointed Librarian in Residence. With disastrous consequences.
A scream and gunshot are heard one night. Marion Hammond is found in her bed in an extreme state of cardiac failure (although with no wound). Dr Gideon Fell (who has his hunches) and Professor Rigaud (who by the way is also a vampire expert) are quickly on the scene.
An exciting denouement sees Miles racing down to London. A chase up the Northern Line to Bolsover Street in Camden Town, in pursuit of the absconded Fay Seton.
Without giving too much away this is both a detective story and a tale of Fate.
Of how coincidence can conspire to make one person’s life a misery years after they think they have left their previous misfortunes behind.
And it offers a salutary tale to those who engage in manipulative behaviour towards their fellow human beings. You will get found out in the end.
I kicked myself when the “whodunit” was revealed, because the clues were so obvious. With hindsight. Including a whopping great clue on the front cover of the book !
The Wikipedia link for the book is here.