Summoned by an elderly relative to their secluded family pile, a young man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as murder, missing documents, an escaped lunatic, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head is a vade mecum for the Golden Age of detective fiction — vast elements of it will appear achingly familiar — and plays perfectly in time with the tattoo of 1937 that Rich has got many of us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals?
Weeeeell, no. If anything, the sheer volume of GAD tropes present herein — country house, dead patriarch, missing will, suspected beneficiaries, suspicious butler, love triangle, blameless people doing suspect things, escaped madman, affable amateur sleuth, etc, etc — seem to be present simply because they are expected. Latimer doesn’t really ever convince as an author with a handle on his threads, and his attempts at spinning out a puzzle-oriented solution from having ramified the various elements of the solution doesn’t hold up in the least; indeed, were I pressed to pick an adjective to describe the plotting here, I’d most likely go for the satggeringly apt acephalous.
Not least to blame is the syncretism inherent in the way he tries to tell the story to begin with. It starts off with a stir of Gothic (chapters 1-3), then becomes a sort of ‘meet the family’ comedy of sorts (chapters 4-12), and then finally decides it might want to be a detective novel at the halfway stage (chapters 13+). This middle section is the killer, because very little happens while Latimer juggles tones and tries to settle on what to go for. None of the comedy is especially funny, none of the events therein have any real bearing on the detective yarn to come…by the time Colonel Black showed up to finally start actually looking into the death and decapitation in the title I’d pretty much checked out.
And then Black himself isn’t really the peremptory presence the book needs. He’s too…unfussy, amenable, almost too packed with idiosyncracies, to really drive the plot onwards. Indeed, once again Latimer seems to be going out of his way to provide the type of thing this story is apparently supposed to have, rather than writing the book that he wants to actually write:
“The first emotion of the orthodox detective is suspicion, and who am I to be unorthodox? … Therefore I suspect everyone. I suspect the third footman (if you have one) and the cook and the house’s faithful spaniel…”
“Collie,” I said.
“…And the groceryman (oh, most of all the groceryman!) and that pretty young lady…”
He smiled, “I was thinking of Miss Harvey.”
“A definite touch, Colonel,” I said.
Perhaps the only real narrative thread of any interest is the gradual emergence of our narrator Peter Coffin — incidentally, also the nom de plume under which this was originally published — from a nebbish man with a self-imposed, childish self-image (declaring the age of 32 to be well past a man’s physical peak, or taking pride in how much sweetcorn he can eat in a single meal) to something more like the GAD hero of yore: chasing murderers, hunting out clues, etc. And it’s nice to see this transformation occur piecemeal — allowing himself to be bullied or laughed at one minute, then assuming a responsibility on behalf of the family the next — rather than just suddenly clicking into place. This part of the plot really works, but alas the rest isn’t quite up to the same standard.
Late in the day, an impossible element enters the picture with someone being killed without any sign of footprints in the mud surrounding their location. This is basic at best, and while the key clue resolving the murderer’s identity comes from this, you also have to ask yourself just how telling it really is. Another moment of denial would have seen them walk free since it’s by no means concrete to my reading, but I’ll admit to some liberal skipping just to get through this. When even the scant period details we get — a housemaid cleaning up the murder scene before the police get to it, because “she doesn’t know what a fingerprint is” being about the limit of it — can’t provide interest, you’re probably onto a bit of a loser here.
Ugh, dammit, I am not on a good run of books at present. It is difficult to maintain enthusiasm, y’know?
John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: Coffin is trapped by his intellectual persona. The obvious eludes him. He is taken into confidence by some of his wily relatives who toy with him and yet he is never aware of their manipulations. He is something of an accidental detective like David Frome’s Mr. Pinkerton who almost always stumbled into a crime and got entangled in the investigation like a cat playing with a ball of yarn.