An isolated ancestral home ruled over by an eccentric patriarch with a keen interest in esoterica and a private museum of medieval weapons, into which an eager young man is brought by an acquaintance only for murder to insinuate its way among the denizens…yup, John Dickson Carr’s The Bowstring Murders (1933) certainly is a classic of the genre. What’s that you say? Death’s Mannikins? Oh, wow, uh, this is awkward. Okay, let’s start again: an isolated ancestral home ruled over by an eccentric patriarch with a keen interest in esoterica and a private museum of medieval weapons, into which an eager young man is brought by an acquaintance only for murder to insinuate its way among the denizens…yeah, no, there’s no getting away from those similarities. And, y’know what? I only bring it up because there’s more than a touch of Carr about this, Afford’s second Jeffery Blackburn novel, and that’s really not a bad thing.
I mean, take the following:
It was as though the second tragedy acted as sudden leaping flames under a simmering pot. The scalding, seething flux exploded and boiled over, galvanizing each person under that roof into an insane panic that throbbed and hummed and zoomed from cellar to tower with the horrible impotence of a monstrous and unclean bluebottle trapped against a window.
The half-light seemed the enrich the drab colouring of the garden, and it took on an aloof dignity that was very near beauty. The hush of approaching night was omnipresent; even the wind was stilled. Jeffery, pausing to look back at the house, was again conscious of that disturbing suggestion of unreality, of moving in some waking dream where trees walked like men and the dead acquired the gift of tongues.
Although it unfortunately becomes less redolent in atmosphere as it progresses, there’s a sense of the macabre and the sinister that pervades certainly the opening stages of Afford’s novel and then resurfaces at intervals later on which is not unlike the master. Indeed, it is frequently the standard of the writing – from reporters chasing threads of a story ‘with all the tireless anticipation of vultures tracking dying cattle’ to the observation that ‘murder is almost invariably the best emetic for bringing up the latent bile of any situation’ – that trumps the uneven unspooling of a plot that just about stays this side of excessively drawn out.
It is superbly earnest once more – as with Owl of Darkness there’s a lot of ejaculating going on – and the less said about the sentence ‘Jeffery, cigarette between his lips and hands in his pockets, surveyed the holy erection more with appreciation than curiosity’ the better, but once you get into the spirit of it there’s an undeniable pull about the setup. Members of the above-mentioned house receive small likenesses of themselves in the mail, soon after which they are murdered. Amateur sleuth Jeffery Blackburn is called in, and almost immediately some borderline-impossible murders present themselves in such a way as to challenge that young man’s confidence and abilities. And so he calls on Inspector Read to join him in untangling the mess, under the certain knowledge of a murderer in their midst who might not stop any time soon…
Being an earlier book than Owl of Darkness, Blackburn feels less like Afford’s own character here and more a collection of Ellery Queenisms (obscure quotations a speciality) that would be phased out as this short series progressed (Philo Vance gets a name-check, which is another apposite comparison to draw). Det. Insp. William Read could almost double as Queen, Sr., too (even calling Blackburn “son” on several occasions), but then the comparison being hard to escape doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. Sure, there’s not the invention of Queen here, nor the plotting or hiding of the guilty party of Carr, but for a second novel to be held favourably with those grand old men of the genre is no small feat. Yes, it comes up short, but in doing so goes a damn sight further than many others who have tried the same thing and fallen harder.
It benefits from unusual structuring – the main murder under discussion is resolved in all but culprit with still 90 or so pages to go – and the fact that Blackburn is undoubtedly more ‘amateur’ than ‘genius’: it’s refreshing to have your independent sleuth frankly admit to their bafflement, and see them put things together by the occasional intuitive leap after a lot of frustrating pacing and self-doubt. Love a genius detective though I do – seriously, there’s a reason Gideon Fell, Sherlock Holmes and their ilk remain popular – a bit of human doubt and confusion is always welcome. If it leads to slightly lumpy plotting and unintriguing stretches of detail-cramming, well, that’s why people typically read a lot of books in a particular genre. If in the long-run this is slightly less successful than Owl of Darkness, it remains nevertheless an enticing read and another reason to check out Max Afford and his contribution to the genre.