A door is broken down, a dead body is found behind it; there is no other exit from the room, but equally no sign of a weapon nor any evidence of suicide…these classic staples of the archetypal impossible murder are put on page one of Miles Burton’s Death Leaves No Card. Added to this is the puzzle of precisely how the deceased came to decease, as there is sign of neither violence nor harm on the body, no evidence of poison or gassing, and, this being the early 1940s, the house is not yet fitted with electricity so it can’t have been electrocution. It may or may not be a locked room, since the window might or might not have been open, but the unclear nature of the death definitely makes it an impossible crime in my eyes. Either way, cue sensible Inspector Henry Arnold.
Last week I reviewed a pseudonymously-published impossible crime novel from Ramble House, and this week it’s the same: Miles Burton is one of the many pseudonyms of Cecil John Charles Street, to my understanding best known for his books as John Rhode, and I’ve not read anything by him under any name before. As introductions go, it has a lot to recommend it. It’s a very pleasing mystery written in an accessible style which, while a little dry and prone to repetition in the opening stages, covers the facts unsensationally and certainly doesn’t appear to be deliberately hiding or obfuscating anything from the reader. I don’t know if this technically makes it a fair-play puzzle, but it’s a straightforward A to B to C to D type of plot that progresses merrily enough and provides ample opportunities for speculation. It took me a little while to key into it, but I think it was because at first I couldn’t work out what seemed so unusual about the plotting and investigation. The setting is simply and clearly established, the characters likewise, but something didn’t quite feel right…
And then it struck me: this is the first classical impossible crime I’ve read that isn’t solved with the assistance of a genius amateur; it is in fact almost purely a police procedural, like something from Freeman Wills Crofts, with the steady accrual of evidence and timetables and permutations on interpretations furthering the investigation. Someone called Desmond Merrion, who I get the impression would normal fill the Genius Amateur rôle, is mentioned but dismissed in the next line as he has ‘flu and that’s as much of a look in as he gets, thanks very much for coming. I can’t compare the relationship from other books, obviously, but while it doesn’t exactly feel as if something is missing it’s fair to say that there is something of a charisma vacuum at the heart of this, which isn’t helped by the fact that Arnold himself is frankly a bit of an arse.
Now, you may have read plenty of these Burton books and disagree, so allow me to qualify that. About two-thirds in there is this exchange between him and a subordinate officer:
“If you’ll excuse me sir,” he said after some hesitation, “but I’ve been thinking.”
“Damned dangerous pastime for a policeman,” Arnold growled. “What have you been thinking about?”
Now, obviously, the point is that policemen should be governed only by evidence and not flights of fancy, but at this stage said subordinate’s thinking has already progressed the case a giant leap, and the suggestion he puts forth next explains away another confounding part of the case. Had it been Superintendent Hadley from The Hollow Man two weeks ago or Chief-Inspector Beale from Policeman’s Evidence last week complaining about policemen thinking, it would have been half in jest at themself. Arnold just seems closed-minded and ungrateful. Elsewhere he’s scornful of a female character for being able to confirm that a something she saw for a moment once is the same something she’s being shown several days later (sorry, but I’m trying to give nothing away), dismissing her lack of instant certainty as ‘womanish’, so at least he’s equal opportunities arseholish. That these are pretty much the only expressions of his personality in the entire book doesn’t help, either, as they stand out as his sole emotional reactions. The rest of the time he’s simply portrayed in action, not thought. Possibly he’s a riot elsewhere – standing up for the suffragettes, encouraging schoolboys in their playful pranks, hosting a Wassailing singalong – but not here.
Anyhoo. The different perspective this type of investigation brought to this type of crime was something I really enjoyed. I’m not convinced about the key clue that tips Arnold to the workings of the murder – I just don’t see how the [REDACTED] would be in the [REDACTED] – but there is a huge amount to enjoy before it comes to that, and the essential idea is very cleverly set up. There’s one thing I felt sure was a clue, so casually was it referred to on a couple of occasions, that turned out to be nothing, and this has more than enough of that type of potential to keep the armchair sleuth interested. Not ground-breaking, not epoch-defining, but very well written and worth your time if you go in for this kind of thing.
There is one more Burton title available from RH – A Smell of Smoke – and unless anyone convinces me in the comments that it’s awful I will definitely be checking that out in future; that, I feel, is a pretty good measure of a book: Did I enjoy it? Yes, with the odd reservation. Would I read this author again? Yes, with the odd reservation. Wow, this review could have been so much shorter…
A quick note, too, on the cover of this Ramble House edition by the superb Gavin L. O’Keefe. It is an extremely pleasing example of taking a simple picture and turning it into a simple piece of art, reminding me of the cover for Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. It in no way reflects upon the book, of course, but of all O’Keefe’s exceptionally diverse imaginings for RH this is probably my favourite, its essential dullness part of what makes it so charming. Good work, sir.