My Book Club has been playing games with me again. Last month, if you’ll recall, someone selected a novel about a man who hosts a party where he invites several acquaintances whom he knows to be criminals, and during the evening, after having hinted broadly at his knowledge, he is stabbed to death while his guests sit at a table in the same room. Unfortunately, in this book there’s not a bridge bid to be had, and Death in Five Boxes turned out to be one of my least favorite Carter Dickson reads to date.
And now, this month we have a 1940’s mystery where a flamboyant, successful artist (with the initials AC) who is involved in a love triangle is killed, and despite the tense circle of friends who surround him, his wife takes responsibility for his death, leaving the sleuth investigating the case to look extensively into the past to solve the murder. You know which novel I’m talking about, right?
Well, . . . no, you don’t. For “AC” does not stand for Amyas Crale (nor, sadly, for Agatha Christie) but for Adrian Carthallow, the larger-than-life artist at the center of So Pretty a Problem, written in 1947 by Francis Duncan. For better or worse, the most intriguing mystery surrounding this book concerns the author himself. In 2015, Vintage Books went looking for another old holiday mystery they could publish, and they discovered Duncan’s Murder for Christmas. Critics and readers all loved the novel, and the question arose: who is this guy, and what other books did he write? Usually, there’s some record of a person’s writing history, but the mystery around who Duncan was turned out to be as cunning as the book he had written.
The puzzle was solved in January 2016 by none other than the author’s daughter Kathryn, who happened to be walking by a Waterstones and saw Daddy’s book in the window! She contacted the publisher and explained that “Francis Duncan” was a pseudonym for William Underhill, a debt collector for the Bristol City Council who began writing mysteries to supplement his income. Between 1936 and 1959, he turned out twenty titles which were well-received and then faded into obscurity.
Seven of Duncan’s novels feature amateur sleuth Mordecai Tremaine, an elderly retired tobacconist with a dual interest in the passions of romance and the vagaries of crime. Tremaine reminds me a bit of Mr. Satterthwaite, who proved a capable Watson to both Hercule Poirot and Mr. Harley Quin: there’s a whiff of “old spinster lady” about both of them. Tremaine always has a copy of Romantic Stories with him, and he is just as interested in finding the correct love connections within a closed circle of suspects as he is in uncovering motives for murder.
On the surface So Pretty a Problem presents a pretty good problem. It begins with a bang: Tremaine is napping on a private beach in Cornwall when Helen Carthallow, the mistress of Paradise, the cliffside home nestled above the beach, comes down to tell him that she has killed her husband. Tremaine accompanies her and finds Adrian Carthallow shot to death in his study. Tremaine notes that the house can only be reached by crossing a bridge and, as witness testimony will later assert, only the Carthallows were seen crossing that bridge during the day.
However, the story Helen tells Tremaine – that she shot her husband accidentally during a playful game with his gun! – does not hold water, and it becomes quickly apparent to the local police that Carthallow was murdered and that his wife was the only person who could have murdered him. Rather than arrest her, however, Inspector Penross asks Mordecai Tremaine, who has come to know the Carthallows and their circle of friends, to discreetly investigate.
Only in the world of classic detective fiction could a little old biddy of a man solve four murder cases (Problem is the fifth Tremaine novel) and garner a nation-wide reputation for crime-solving. It helps here that Mordecai is on vacation with his dear friend, Chief Inspector Jonathan Boyce of Scotland Yard, who puts in a good word for his buddy to Penross (who might not have needed the recommendation since Tremaine’s exploits seem to be regular fodder for the newpapers.) It’s probably also helpful that Penross, like every male in the novel, seems to find Helen Carthallow irresistible and would hate to be responsible for sending her to the dock.
After the basic facts of the crime are presented, the novel jumps back in time for a lengthy exploration of how Mordecai met Carthallow and his entourage. Since this comprises most of the book (Penross doesn’t even ask Tremaine for help until the final section with a mere hundred or so pages left to read), one figures that the important clues will come about from Tremaine’s observations of the closed circle that surrounds the artist and his wife. Duncan offers some good writing here, particularly in his descriptions of the Cornwall coast and the nature of a seaside vacation resort:
“There were names carved into the spongy turf. Mordecai Tremaine amused himself searching for them. He wondered who Thelma and Ruby were and whether they had married George and Harry or whether theirs had been merely a seaside acquaintanceship that had faded when the train had left Falporth on a Saturday morning, taking them back to another year of routine.”
The author has also created an interesting victim, who proves to be the most fascinating character in the novel:
“Adrian Carthallow . . . was one of those men who fascinated women. They fell over themselves to win his favors, particularly the spoiled, empty-headed . . . variety. So far, of course, it was just the old story over again. The creative artist, possessed of an irresistible power over women and treading his careless way undeterred by broken hearts or irate husbands, was one of the most familiar of the luscious novelist’s stock figures. But Adrian Carthallow did not run true to type.”
Unfortunately, Duncan does not invest his other characters with the same complexity. They’re not stick figures by any means, but they all tend to operate on a single note. Helen is beautiful and she lies, which is pretty much all we get to know about her. She’s too undeveloped to fit into the category of tragic heroine or femme fatale. And then there are the circle of suspects, each with one or two traits that the author belabors constantly: neighbor Hilda Eveland (plump and jolly), family friend Lewis Haldean (a bearded Viking), estate agent Elton Steele (broad and earnest), Roberta Fairham, who worships Adrian (mousy and malevolent), and Lester Imleyson, who everyone is sure is Helen’s lover (a handsome cipher). There are another half dozen characters for Tremaine to keep track of, but since everybody seems to spend their days wandering around the beach and their nights at dinner parties, Mordecai has plenty of opportunities to engage these folks in conversation or to simply eavesdrop.
Duncan has an interesting meta-fictional point to make about the amateur detective. One gets the sense that Mordecai Tremaine had, for the better part of his life, been a lonely man. At one point, he even hints at “the girl who got away.” Being a detective allows him to travel in circles he never dreamed he would enter, both those of the police and of the upper strata of folk who tend to dream of murdering each other in interesting ways. But there’s a downside to being the detective, who has to view the real people he has met and even formed friendships with objectively as pieces of a puzzle:
“There was a victim who was a reality instead of a name. There was a murderer one might know intimately and even grow to like before one discovered the truth and realized that this was a human soul that had to be branded with the red stigma of guilt. When you reached the truth you had to hurry over it and then do your utmost to forget it before the horror of it could overwhelm you.”
This passage is my favorite part of the novel. Unfortunately, the mystery itself unfolds in less satisfying ways than I might have hoped. Mordecai observes a lot, but what he observes is pretty obvious. It’s like Duncan has invited you to solve a puzzle, but when you get to his house, you find it’s one of those 100-piece jigsaw puzzles of a giraffe. The impossible crime aspect of the case – how could anyone else have killed Adrian if his wife was the only one who could have come and gone from the house – is chipped away, bit by bit, using fair measures and foul, until you start to wonder if anyone in the novel was not in Paradise at some point during the day.
I think it’s the total absence of reversals that bothered me: a clue, when presented, means exactly what you would think it means, and yet everyone pretends to be so mystified by what they see. At one point, Mordecai overhears a conversation on the beach where only a few words float to him across the waves. If you can’t figure out from those words exactly what Adrian Carthallow has been up to, then you are a neophyte to mysteries, and God bless you.
And that may be where Francis Duncan belongs, based on the reading of only one of his novels: to the casual or new reader of mystery stories. I would need a strong recommendation from a friend to read another, particularly since I seem to recall hearing that this was the best of the bunch! The writing is perfectly pleasant, the mystery structure is all there, and nobody need fear any dangerous surprises around the corner. In that sense, I suppose the solution plays fair, although the motive, relying on one of those clues I mentioned above, is both obvious and still comes out of left field. And then there’s the whole murder plot, where I couldn’t help wondering through Mordecai’s final confrontation with the killer . . . “Why bother? Why not just push him off a cliff, which would have been a thousand percent easier and less prone to flaws than what you ultimately performed? What were you thinking?”
The final moments of the novel are reserved for Mordecai’s true passion – whether or not love will find a way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say So Pretty a Problem is a romance novel with mystery overtones, and yet, like the minacious tides of the pulchritudinous Cornwall sea, Duncan advances us, ever fleetingly yet fittingly, in that direction.