I believe the philosopher John Francis Bongiovi, Jr. said it best: “Keep the faith”. The Dead Are Blind is the third novel by Max Afford I’ve read and, having hugely enjoyed the other two, I found myself struggling to maintain interest through the opening chapters. Certainly from a historical perspective they have plenty to offer – our lead characters are invited to tour a radio studio on its opening night, something of a gala event at the time, and so this is chock-full of fascinating tidbits from Afford’s own experience of working in radio. But the mix of dense description and fixation on minute details that are hugely unlikely to become relevant later puzzled even my will and left me a bit apathetic by the end of chapter two.
And then chapter three launches us into a plot that doesn’t let up until the final page, and highlights once again how lucky we are that Ramble House have brought these back into print for absolutely anyone to enjoy. There is, of course, a murder in the radio studio and there is, of course, our genius amateur Jeffery Blackburn on hand with mentor/father-figure Chief Inspector William Jamieson Read to clear him a free hand within the investigation. And it’s all completely joyous – you’ll think you have the murderer pegged early on, but I’d advise holding onto your hat and just letting the fun of this take you, because Afford has a keen crime writer’s brain and is wise to many of the tropes of the genre…although he often just rides them out beautifully rather than getting all stuffy and self-important about it.
Indeed, the constant references to detective stories – and especially how good the plot of this one is – would probably come across as hubris from anyone else’s typewriter, but Afford’s charm keeps you on-side while also going on about how damned awesome he is with a wry grin behind everything. This is helped by touches like the opening line being a very deliberate Sherlock Holmes reference (and the final chapter calling once again on Holmes), especially in light of Afford’s description of Blackburn’s mental turmoil as the case progresses, which both reeks of Holmes and yet finds something new in what could simply be a lazy archetype:
Ill-at-ease and restless, he wandered about the flat, lighting a cigarette and tossing it away after the first few puffs, making ado about mixing a drink and then leaving it untasted.The he crossed to the window and stared out with unseeing eyes. He recognised the symptoms only too well. His mind was disturbed; the cold, incisive machine that was his brain was vibrating and pulsing, and without the counter-weight of balancing material it throbbed like some over-accelerated high-power engine in neutral gear. The subtle intuition that never failed him whispered that chance had, all unwittingly, guided his feet to the entrance of some dark and devious maze, the more sinister since it appeared on the surface so straightforward.
I’ve mentioned before how much Blackburn and Read have an Ellery and Richard Queen dynamic, and that is also reinforced here once again, particularly in aspects of the plot which echo The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) and the relaxed comfort of their living arrangements. Blackburn – quotations, obscure references to Spartan mythology, keen interest in and knowledge of seemingly every subject under the sun – comes across at least as much Queen as Philo Vance, but then there’s a plafulyness in him that eclipses either of those fine gentlemen, too. For as much as Afford is leaning heavily on these illustrious predecessors, he’s finding something new and subtly different to mix in, and that’s no easy task (the extended treaties on poisons, for instance, which shows a wonderful flair for technical writing).
I’m uncertain as to whether to categorise this as an impossible crime (though it’s my understanding that Bob Adey did, and who am I to disagree with him?) because, well, it’s kinda not. Certainly a great many of the aspects flirt outrageously with impossibility, but before they can fully commit someone has the sense to take away their wine and bundle them into a cab home. It’s possibly the most borderline impossible crime novel I’ve ever read, and walking such a fine line so successfully is something else Afford deserves credit for. It feels familiar without being hoary, it works in aspects of thrillers and plot tropes from far less-considered books but emerges somehow fresh and intriguing beyond all those trappings. The bundling of confounding elements – the seeingly-undetectable poison, the murder committed in a pitch-black room, the locked door limiting the suspects – just makes it more fun.
Part of the advantage of having a day or so to dwell on a book before reviewing it is that I’ve come to realise just how thoroughly developed so many of the threads herein are – there are plots within plots, and one especially heartbreaking development that works just brilliantly in the wider context. Sure, some of the minor characters get forgotten as things progress and there’s a pile of Evil Monologuing come the end (which I actually didn’t mind), but for sheer structure and abandon this is probably what you’re looking for if you think your tastes intersect with mine in any significant way.
So, yeah, thanks John. I shall bear your advice in mind from now on.
Afford, like Rupert Penny, is another author Ramble House have brought back to my complete delight. Afford, alas, did far more work for radio than he did for readers, but the titles he did publish – available from RH – are: