I dunno, I’m starting to think it’s me. For the second time in just over a month — the first being with T.H. White’s Darkness at Pemberley — I’ve read a novel famed for its impossible murder plot and come away going “Well, yeah, but that’s not really an impossible crime, though, is it.” The shooting of millionaire health guru Merlin Broadstone on the fourth floor of his hotel on his exclusive island health farm presents a couple of interesting points, but the fact that he was shot through an open window and that an obvious deduction is ignored for pretty much the entire duration of the case precludes any impossibility in my mind. One perplexing occurrence and the characters failing to consider a particular set of circumstances doesn’t make it an impossible crime. Maybe I’m too narrow-minded, but this doesn’t fly for me.
Fortunately, Green is a very talented farceur, and the inventiveness of some of his phrasing — witness his explanation for why nominal detective Lt. John Hugo no longer talks to himself — and this gives everything a levity that makes his debut an easy enough read as it dabbles in forms of comedy from the low-brow farce on up. To wit, about the murder of Broadstone it is said:
Consequently, when on the morning of January 3, 1948, Broadstone was murdered, it was conservatively estimated that there were about fifty million muscle-sore, palette-deadened, de-alcoholized, and tobacco-hungry suspects, each one with a powerful motive.
Elsewhere, as the Inevitable Romance burgeons, there’s the following exchange between the two smitten lovers who are at swim in the resort’s pool:
“How’s the water?” asked Sandra.
“Water?” asked John, as if she had opened the conversation by introducing a new element.
It’s this wittiness that makes the book, since it’s rather woebegone as a piece of detective fiction. The standard avaricious, bullied, unapologetically unaffected family are gathered as suspects, and Green does excellent work in spinning for each of them a comic web whose strands overlap in a manner that not only works humorously but also from a plot perspective. Comical misunderstandings propel certain events and hinder others, of course, but he’s at his best when capturing the vacuous, skirt-chasing Carl Hutch in moments of repose, or dismissing in third-person narration the idiosyncracies of Carl’s equally empty-headed sister Joanne. It was the potential for the most mundane-seeming of sentences to prise from me a snort of uproarious laughter that kept me on my toes, which would be fine for a straight comedy but is something of a shame when there’s meant to be a mystery in there too.
Not that we should dismiss how difficult it is to write a genuinely funny detective novel, but the balance is so firmly in the comedy here that a lot of the murder plot does start to feel extraneous. To Green’s eternal credit, it is faultlessly clued and relies on some key ideas sprinkled with undeniable adroitness and clarity early on and then simply left to simmer in time for the tasting of the big reveal. One aspect which frustrated me hugely actually turns out to have a very nifty explanation which, upon reading in the final chapter, made me forgive this hitherto unsatisfying aspect of it all. It’s hard to believe that anyone reading this now would be too fooled by the misdirection Green attempts — it’s one of the more obvious central murders I’ve read in a long time — but his workings are rather excellently thought through, and I’m not going to question his solution in any regard except motive…the motive really does come out of nowhere.
So a mixed bag, a curate’s egg, a Nolan’s filmography of a book. With perhaps an iota more brain to match its victim’s brawn this would be a firmer recommendation; as it is, it lolls around that awkward middle ground of “worth it if you can find a cheap copy, but let’s face it you’re unlikely to find a cheap copy and I can’t honestly recommend that you spend too much money on this when you do find it”. I feel like its real trump card is how Green’s superb, gently-prodding wit is writ throughout as in a stick of rock, but there are plenty of other funny books more easily available.
However, the back cover is legitimately hilarious, and I include it below for your perusal:
At the Scene of Crime: What a Body! is a delightful parody of the locked-room mystery genre, and the author’s satirical style is just perfect…The locked room mystery is, plain and simple, dull. The solution is easily spotted from miles away, and although many false solutions are offered, most of them are offered in an alcoholic stupor, and to be quite honest, none of them is particularly solid.
PornoKitsch: The investigation therefore centers on Broadstone’s ‘friends’ and family, who had all gathered around him for the big opening. The cast is universally entertaining: windbag Senators, unscrupulous maids and playboy heirs all jostle for attention. The narrator treats everyone unsparingly, but lovingly – there are no ‘bad guys’ in What a Body! (except, perhaps, the deceased).
I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category A Blonde (woman or man).