Okay, I’ve had nearly two months off and have been promising this review for that whole time, so let’s see if I can remember how this works…
Animals and their involvement in impossible crimes enjoy a long history, from the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle all the way up to the Jonathan Creek episode The House of Monkeys. Approximately halfway between these two we have Roman McDougald’s mandrill Geva, resident of your classical American Millionaire’s Household and on hand when said millionaire is found murdered in frankly baffling circumstances: in his office, stabbed in the back, with both doors into the room unlocked. Yes, unlocked. And yet he failed to leave the room while being attacked – the trail of blood he left leads from his desk to one door, then the other, and halfway back again – or raise the alarm in any way before the killer escaped.
This book would have completely passed me by but for TomCat’s list of favourite locked room novels over at Beneath the Stains of Time, which has proved a launching pad for my investigations into some of the less-heralded authors who dabbled in our shared passion. However, that erudite locked room expert and I are going to disagree on this one: I don’t really rate it. The puzzle of an unlocked room is a fantastic notion, and the later locked room murder of one of the suspects is a nice addition (if rather basic, and likely to infuriate S.S. van Dine), but mainly this is slightly over-long and moderately dull standard fare that offers little you can’t afford to miss.
What it does have is a beautiful sense of time: set contemporary to its publication, this is unquestionably a product of the 1950s. Not just on account of its compulsion to confront elements of sex yet its ham-fistedness in so doing – the slightly tone-deaf rape comment on the second page, a suspected homosexual being called a “pansy”, its unintentioanlly-comically prudish attempts to catalgoue the sexual exploits of its various characters – but also due to its economy of slightly hard-edged prose that could only ever have rattled out of an American typewriter from this era:
He found the palms of his hands sweating and he wondered why. He was certainly not afraid in any definite sense. But he was aware that it might be a much more implausible reaction, a vague realisation out of the past that he would someday die in a still, prosaic spot such as this. And at the hands, perhaps, of a young punk with a knife in his fingers. A soft young punk, kept by a woman, and one who couldn’t even use his fists.
Or the pithy toughness of its PI protagonist that has moved on from the jaded 1940s and instead finds a grubby eloquence for some aspects of the human condition:
Fear brought its own anonymity, he thought, and it was strangley like guilt.
For this alone, I would love it – even the recycled characters help McDougald limn something really rather evocative, but mainly because it wallows so unapologetically in cliche to make its point. If the lack of anything really new is likely to nettle you, you’re better off staying away, but as a period piece there’s so much here to appreciate.
The solution to the unlocked room is fine, I missed the killer mainly because I was so very bored by the time it came to that, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t hold together. The solution to the locked bathroom is weak, it’s one you can afford to miss, but then it comes in quite late and so was never going to reinvent the genre. It’s the kind of plot where someone is poisoned just to provide intrigue: it turns out anyone could have done it at the time and so the whole thing is forgotten, but Something Has Happened to fill the pages and That Will Be Exciting.
For characters we have three detectives – an actual policeman, a PI, and a DA – despite there being no discernable reason for two-thirds of them, a set of suspects who can be differentiated along gender lines and the fact that one of them speaks French…and the monkey. The monkey might just be the most interesting of the lot, but we hardly ever see her and her inclusion in the title is…well, any primatologists may wish to look elsewhere (that Jonathan Creek episode, now, that was damn good). Nothing here is outright bad, but neither does it commend itself to busy people with plenty of other books to read, and even students of the era or subgenre are probably better off elsewhere. A curiosity, and one justly forgotten.