Roger Bewlay is a murderer. Under various pseudonyms, he married various women and then, presumably, murdered them. Presumably because no trace of them was ever found – they completely vanished. As has Bewlay himself…
Eleven years later, actor Bruce Ransom receives a script that catches his attention, the story of a murderer whose victims vanished without trace. Disagreeing with his director, Beryl, as to the ending of the play, he plans to prove her wrong – he heads to the village named in the script to pretend to be Bewlay to see how events play out. But there is a problem with the script – it contains details that only the murderer could have known. Is Bewlay at large in the village? Or is he even closer to home? Luckily Sir Henry Merrivale is around to stick his nose in…
Past Offences – a blog that you really should check out – has been running monthly reading challenges targetting a particular year for a while now and I figured it was well past time I joined in. You can find the other posts throughout November by following the hashtag #1946book on twitter. Rich will also post a summary at the end of the month over on his blog.
But let’s have a look at this one. Written just after the war, there is a sense of London undergoing a recovery, especially in the opening sequences of the book. Merrivale makes his usual over-the-top entrance, this time causing a riot in a penny-arcade, but there is an over-arching feeling of near-horror at times and Carr wisely quickly makes this one of Merrivale’s more serious outings.
The change of tone is a welcome one after the lighter tone of the previous Curse Of The Bronze Lamp – highly regarded elsewhere but not one of my favourites. Carr does a great job of marrying the tension with an adventure style plot akin to the early Merrivale outing The Punch and Judy Murders, another outing that isn’t a complete success for me.
But what about this one? Let’s address the massive weakness first of all.
There isn’t really an impossible crime, but unfortunately the author seems to think there is. The fact that Bewlay has managed to hide three bodies isn’t that impressive really, and even the “clever” hiding place (which is actually pictured on the front of my copy of the book – pictured here, but with a massive spoiler warning) is pretty obvious. There’s a bit more in the disappearance of the fourth victim, but that’s pretty clearly telegraphed as well. The truth seems to elude Merrivale for ages though, despite his apparently knowing who the killer is very early.
On the other hand though, the killer is very well hidden – I remember when reading the book for the first time being genuinely surprised as to their identity even though it makes (mostly) perfect sense. You have to swallow a little about the stupidity of the play being written in the first place, but there are several genuinely gripping sequences here, especially in the closing sequences – some of the tensest sequences that I’ve read in a Golden Age mystery.
Not a book that gets mentioned very often – probably for the lack of an impossible crime – but it’s one of Carr’s best constructed whodunits, and a cracking read as well. Highly Recommended.