#43: Owl of Darkness (1942) by Max Afford

Owl of DarknessRegular readers of this blog – hello, Mum – will be aware of how much I appreciate die-hard devotees like Fender Tucker and Tom and Enid Schantz, whose (respectively) Ramble House and Rue Morgue Press imprints have for years been keeping the kind of classics everyone had long forgotten about in print just for the love of them.  I won’t condescend to imply that everything they publish is of equal quality, but some of it is more equal than others and they have jointly brought some absolute delights to my attention.  Unfortunately the latter’s Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert proved not to be my kind of thing and so I couldn’t really review it having not read it, but it does give me a chance to talk about Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness which is published by the former and I read in those bleak and hazy dark days I now think of as ‘pre-blog’.

This is a superbly earnest Golden Age romp – there’s a lot of ejaculating when people speak – with just enough edge of crazy in its setup to elevate it above the standard English Country House Fare: a thief dressed as an owl (it’s okay, you read that correctly) carries out a series of daring thefts before setting their sights on scientist and his particularly valuable Macguffin.  A warning note is sent ahead of each crime bearing the legend “Fly by Night!” (interesting fact: the alternative title for this book in certain territories) and when the police are called in to help protect said Macguffin…well, what do you think?  Yes, there is a closed circle of suspects; yes, there is a big house; yes, there are shocking revelations and a criss-cross of motivations and deliberate obfuscation; and, yes, there is both a dyed-in-the-wool dogged detective and his talisman genius amateur whom he tolerates and is the one to actually get to the bottom of things.  Nevertheless, do not get complacent on account of this classic crime perseveration: we wade just far enough into the tropes of the genre to get you comfortable and then all manner of surprises are pulled out from beneath you…

Afford (in my mind it rhymes with Old Trafford, rather than being the answer to a question about a brand of car) was an Australian who produced a fair number of plays for radio alongside his novels.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, he has a lovely ear for the way people speak (he trips lightly into some delightfully phonetic speech at times) as well as a gift with atmospheric phrases that suddenly veer out and grip you by the throat when you’re at risk of expecting some below-par fare:

There was one of those hushed silences when all the world seems to have paused, listening: the blank, timeless break between thunderclap and downpour when the very air hovers motionless.

His multiple strands dovetail very well in a way that reminds me of couple-of-reviews-back author, and fellow RH alumnus, Norman Berrow, and a repeated motif of reporting certain events retrospectively helps to hasten proceedings along, with enough suspects and mysterious behaviour among the thrillerish goings-on to divert your attention this way and that.  Adherents to Father Knox’s decalogue will be slightly – only slightly, mind – put out, but the rest of you will doubtless realise how much fun he’s having and forgive his minor transgressions.

The one situation that edges towards a ‘locked room’ element fades into nothing soon thereafter, and there’s another possible impossible crime (if you get me) later on that’s simply a result of Afford not considering his timings properly, but for sheer bonkers enjoyment I’m more than happy to let that slide.  Through the quantity of metadata I’ve amassed on this genre over the years I was able to tumble to the guilty party and essential workings of the core criminal enterprise, but these two mild disappointments don’t detract too greatly from the joyous few hours spent blitzing through Max Afford’s helter-skelter world for the first time.  He even consequentially slipped a complete humdinger of a surprise past me when I was convinced I had everything worked out, and that’s always a nice feeling, isn’t it?

Genius amateur Jeffery Blackburn runs the risk of becoming one of those paragons who has lived one of those perfect lives – Oxford-educated, probably about 40 years old and already resigned the Chair of Mathematics position at a fictional university to pursue his anti-criminal enterprises – but is saved from supercilliousness by having absolutely no clue what is going on at times.  Every time you think he’s going to veer into Gervase Swamp or Ellery Duchess territory, Afford brings him back from the brink with a quiet reminder to wind his neck in, and he’s kept from speechifying and other such grandstanding as he’s too busy following leads, getting into scrapes and occasionally standing by with a confused look on his face.  As archetypes go, this Genius Amateur is among the least archtypal I’ve encountered in this type of novel, and if he’s a little hard to pin down then he’s also a character I look forward to spending a lot more time with.

Afford isn’t quite the discovery of my year, but he does enough well enough to merit being more widely read and I commend him to those of you who are looking for Country House fare.  Huge fun, a great read, another wonderful discovery courtesy of Ramble House; chalk up another success to the Golden Age, and continued good health and happy sailing to all who bring these books to our attention.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars


35 thoughts on “#43: Owl of Darkness (1942) by Max Afford

  1. I find that a number of books by Max Afford including 5 novels of the Jeffery Blackburn series (though not this one) are available free at Project Gutenberg Australia.


  2. Pingback: #69: Death’s Mannikins (1937) by Max Afford | The Invisible Event

  3. Pingback: Brilliant Read: Blood On His Hands (1937) by Max Afford | crossexaminingcrime

  4. I just finished ‘Owl of Darkness’, and I think I concur on with you. A very strong novel that, despite some kinks with grammar and syntax (“He spoke hollowly”?!), was well-written with a keen eye for evocative detail. Like you I wasn’t entirely taken aback by the conclusion, having guessed most aspects barring one key revelation – so it was still good that there was something to be surprised by. But it was certainly a pleasurable ride on the whole. 🙂

    Hope things are ok at your end, and I’m looking forward to your next review. Something starring Gervase Fen, perhaps?


    • P.S. So frustrating not to be able to edit my posts – especially when I spot errors of expression. All the more so in a post criticising a writer for “kinks with grammar and syntax’. 😛


    • Delighted you enjoyed it — it was my first Afford and a lively surprise. Need to get back to him, actually, but then thats true of about 17 authors at present.

      Reviews will be back up this week, just had a lot of real world stuff to sort through — going with Clayton Rawson, as his books are hilariously hard to find and I’ve finally tracked some down, but Fen will feature before too long, have no fear…!


  5. Pingback: #110: The Dead Are Blind (1937) by Max Afford | The Invisible Event

  6. Pingback: #146: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Invoking the Dreads Through Killer Threads | The Invisible Event

  7. So, I just ordered this and his short story book. I almost bought The Dead Are Blind but opted for a couple of locked room short stories. As always, this blog (and other blogs in the alliance) has proved invaluable.


    • Delighted to hear it, Brad, thanks; I hope you enjoy OOD as much as I did — Afford was a very talented writer who was able to spin some excellent ideas very easily, and it’s a real shame we only have a handful of novels from him. Would love to hear your thoughs on this once you’ve read it.

      And if you enoy this, I can heartily recommend fellow Ramble House alumnus Norman Berrow: his conclusions aren’t quite as tight as Afford, but he’s having a huge amount of fun and is a prodigiously creative author of freewheeling detective plots and imaginative schemes the like of which we’ve not seen for quite some years now.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent! Thanks for the recommendation. The Afford books will be my second two Ramble House titles after the Hake Talbot novels, and I’d be very open to more from a good boutique label such as them.

    And I’ll make sure to give you my thoughts after reading it!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m making notes! (And I meant to say earlier that I like your icon of The Lord Of Misrule. That’s one I enjoyed.)


        • Delighted to hear you enjoyed TLoM — it’s a much-maligned book in my opinion, a fabulous Carr homage that people seem to dislike for trying to be too much like Carr…when I sort of feel that’s the exact point. I really must get round to posting about why it’s simply the biggest The Hollow Man fan letter ever written, but since I’ll need to reread them both that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Ah, well…


          • Can someone really try to be too much like Carr?! To each their own of course. It’s been a couple or three Christmases ago. I am a huge Carr fan. With the exception of The Department Of Queer Complaints and the Conan Doyle biography, I’m pretty sure I own all of his books now. Anyway, that’s a blog post that I’d love to read!


            • I think there’s a point where, in aping someone, one probably has to stamp their own voice or interpretaion upon events. For various reasons, I think when Halter’s explanations come — and I I’m not a fan of everything he’s ever done — there seems at times to be a sense of disappointment that everything doesn’t have the same wow factor of Carr at his best.

              I’ve already written at great length about the originality Halter brings to many of his impossibilities, but I know they’re not to everyone’s taste. Still, I find him hugely more successful and entertaining than a lot of his comtemporaries, and the fact that he knows whereof he writes and is trying so hard to be original will always count in his favour as far as I’m concerned 🙂


            • I can’t disagree with that. And I too, haven’t loved everything I’ve read of his. I also wonder if there’s something about the way they’ve not been translated in chronological order. If perhaps the reader loses a through line of progress.


            • Dunno; does an author necessarily progress with every book? There’s got to be a fair amount of shuffling sideways (and even backwards), otherwise they’d all just punch out winner after winner after a while, right?


            • That’s true (again!) But the better ones do seem to hit a stride. In any event I think it is harder to track momentum, whether forward, backward, or side to side, when there are gaps. And as always, you’ve given me something to think on.


  9. Query sir. I’m trying to choose between purchasing Murder On The Way!, The Owner Lies Dead, or Sealed Room Murder. I’ll own all three eventually, but a tip on which I should buy first?


    • I can’t speak for The Owner Lies Dead — which sounds awesome, btw, and is definitely on my TBB with a few other Coachwhip titles –but as to the others:

      Sealed Room Murder is a very traditional sort of country house mystery, though shot through with a sort of — sort of, mind you — unreliable narrator who is pompous and so unknowingly the butt of a certain amount of humour in the way he chooses to present things. It’s a very clever piece of genre subversion, though others who know their stuff, including TomCat, really don’t like it. It’s rich in the standard tropes for the first two thirds, and then spirals into a very spry and delightfully complex puzzle that you suddenly realise has been heavily-clewed up to that point.

      MotW is frank breathlessness from the off. Once you get the first chater out of the way, it doesn’t really let up, and just becomes this sort of freewheeling insanity of escalating madness and a distinct grand guignol edge to a complex puzzle that gets crazier and crazier and then pays off in the most brilliantly unexpected way. Imagine a group of Bond villains trapped in a GAD mystery and you’re closer to the truth than sounds possible.

      So it’s very much a question of whoch of them sounds likewhat you’re after at present… Hope this helps!


          • Oh, good grief!! Brad is a beautiful name, and sharing it makes us sort of like blood brothers or something! I’m not so small that I can’t share! (But maybe if you spelled it “Bread” . . . ???)

            And JJ, I’m working on a piece about dying messages. I’ll try and fit the “two Brads” theory in!


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