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.
20 thoughts on “#110: The Dead Are Blind (1937) by Max Afford”
Well, well, this is the one I was looking at starting Afford with because you HADN’T read it and because I love old radio. At first, I was afraid you were going to say you didn’t like it, but it sounds like you had a good time. AND this is the first Afford review where you didn’t use the descriptor, “earnest!”
Since there are only six, I assume you would recommend reading them in order. Does one get any extra thrill by doing so? (Like some minor advancement in private life or mention of old cases?)
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Well, as I’ve shown in the last couple of days, it would probably help you remember the characters’ personal lives…! But in true GA fashion that’s not really a necessary part of each story. Arguably Death’s Mannikins is the weakest of those I’ve read so far and thus I’d recommend probably not starting there, but then it benefits from an unusual structure and some good atmosphere…so it depends what you go in for. Owl of Darkness is…bonkers. Wonderful — and, yes, exceptionally earnest — but also a touch mad.
No-one seems to have done The Sheep and the Wolves or Sinners in Paradise yet, so you could always strike that ground if you want to do An Original Review!
I also enjoyed reading the book and agree with your rating of 4 stars.
Incidentally, there are 5 novels featuring Jeffery Blackburn. Sinners In Paradise does not feature him.
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Ah, very interesting. I wonder what moved him to abandon his series sleuths so late in the day. Will be interesting to see what that book is like, or what about the setting/workings made it unsuitable for a genius amateur who can go anywhere and do everything…thanks for pointing this out.
Good review, reminded me of the things I liked about Afford’s writing. Really should get round to reading another of his. Thanks for the shout out.
Look forward to your thoughts on whichever you end up with next…
Thanks JJ this sounds bloody marvellous to me 😊
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I want to read this! I tried to put in an order directly with Ramble House, but nothing seems to be happening. 😦
And it looks like there’s a new Locked Room International release?? 😀
Yup, The Howling Beast is Noel Vindry’s second novel and the second of his books LRI have put out (John Pugmire appears to be translating Vindry in order of publication, unlike Halter where I guess the rights make that problematic). I’ve got the first Vindry, The House that Kills, but haven’t read it yet. Was planning on doing some kind of double post on them or something, but that isn’t going to happen now.
Dunno what to suggest about RH. Fender’s usually pretty swift at responding to orders, but I can offer no explanations as I don’t know the man personally. Perhaps try emailing him again…not, of course, that you wouldn’t have thought of that…
You call this a borderline impossible crime and I don’t want to give too much away, but it does qualify as a full-fledged locked room mystery because the murderer has to get pass a locked door to get to the victim. That makes the book a locked room mystery. On top of that, Afford solution anticipates a much praised method from a very famous locked room novel. So there’s that.
Definitely worth the four stars you gave it.
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Yeah, I suppose my issue with it being a fully-fledged impossible crime is two-fold. Moderate spoilers below, incidentally, so avoid if you’re planing on reading this on completely pure:
Firstly, if she was killed by someone in the room then, well, they were in the room with her. Sure, it’s dark, but that simply makes it very, very difficult rather than impossible. Hair-splitting, perhaps, but arguably an important distinction.
Secondly, and this is a sizeable spoiler, when the method of murder is confirmed, I seem to remember that the workings of it — from outisde the room — are established pretty quickly. It’s entirely possible I’m mis-remembering, but there didn’t seem to be sufficient time for it to actually baffle with its undoability. So the “WTF?” is not really given enough time to build into an impossible crime.
As I say, I could be wrong in that recollection, but that’s my slight hesitation in calling it a stone-cold impossibility. What do you think, TC? Am I missing the point? Wouldn’t be the first time… 🙂
Oh, I see where you’re coming from. If you solely look at how the murder is presented, then yes, it would be a borderline impossible crime at best. Or even simply a how-dun-it. But what makes the book a locked room mystery is that the explanation reveals the murder to have been one from that category, even if it was never played up in the way Carr or Hoch would have done.
In that regard, it’s one of those strange books in which the solution reveals you were reading a locked room mystery all along. Beverley Nichols’ The Moonflower is a good example of the hiding the seemingly impossible nature of the crime, while still qualifying as one.
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”…Afford solution anticipates a much praised method from a very famous locked room novel.”
Are you referring to the novel by Carter Dickson ?
Yes, I refer to that Carter Dickson novel.
I don’t think I know that Carter Dickon novel, so it’s one I’ve not yet come across. Thans for putting The Moonflower on my radar, too, sounds like a very interesting book. Gotta love this blogging community 🙂
Oh, no, wait of course I know that Carter Dickson book. Being dim, sorry,
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