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.