Summoned by a distant relative to a secluded family pile, a young(ish) man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as money-hungry relatives, murder, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways No Flowers By Request takes the exact same ingredients as The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head — vast swathes of it will appear ominously familiar — and plays perfectly in the 1937 tradition that Rich has got us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals? And is it any good, after the failure of Jonanthan Latimer’s stirring of these same ingredients?
Well, thankfully, yes; if a touch laborious at times — brought about, I’d wager, from the overriding tone being on the sombre side of zany (or perhaps the zany side of sombre…?) — this is a far finer use of the Country House Mystery and all its tropes. And, in fact, it makes an interesting companion piece to that Latimer title from last week because it’s virtually the exact same setup but done well, and with a narrative maintained across a similar length that has a clear and defined aim, a very good use of atmosphere, and a far lighter touch with its misdirection, clewing, construction, and the numerous characters we meet.
There is nothing in Latimer’s book even half so well observed as the following, for instance, between the elderly Aunt Evelyn and the Mexican manservant Oviedo:
“Well, my man,” she greeted him, “I’m not going to like calling you Oviedo. Haven’t you got an easier name?”
“Sure,” he said easily.
“And what is it?” Aunt Evelyn insisted.
“Jesus,” replied the Mexican calmly.
Aunt Evelyn, who takes everything in her stride, choked faintly and then smiled. “Lead the way, Oviedo.”
Palmer’s investigation is much more in the background than was Latimer’s, with his narrator Alan Cameron and his autonomous collective of three ‘cousins’ going about the investigation into the fire that killed their elderly uncle in a very organic manner. The sheer horror of living in a confined space with a possible murderer is readily apparent throughout, but Palmer’s use of levity prevents everything getting too bogged down — the seventeen year-old Eustace dreaming of having a powerful car “ever since I was a kid”, Sheriff Bale’s reason for being certain that a murder has been committed (the body was destroyed in the fire), the early snipe about someone “fainting with joy” — that balances out the sub-Gothic tones of someone…
…perched high on the bench of the great organ, idly pounding out some popular tune or other. But somehow, everything she played, even the lightest of jazz, seemed to come out the “Dead March” from Saul.
Equally, there is an infectious enthusiasm in the moment the coroner details the forensic tests he has undertaken in trying to establish certain facts about the crime, the kind of thing usually taken as known these days and so easily swept aside being brought out fully to bask in two whole paragraphs of its own, complete with excitable character asides. Palmer is enjoying himself with these little touchstones, and even if one character is arguably justified in complaining at a late stage that “murders are supposed to have clues…tangible things that you can wonder about” — this is not the detective novel in full effulgence — there are enough little incidents throughout to keep you guessing and wondering.
It does lose a bit of pace towards the end, perhaps more respectful to proper procedure than it needs to be, and a couple of later chapters dealing with wills and inquests could be condensed and combined to improve the experience, but then the second- and third-string stories being played out against the murder are actually quite beautifully handled and lovely to watch. I mean, they won’t surprise a fair proportion of you, but it’s refreshing to see someone treat a nominally predictable couple of threads in a manner that isn’t quite as laconic as it could be, paying mere lip service, and instead investing it with a full background of emotion and a real undertone of loss.
So the flaws herein are not so miniscule as to dismiss without consideration, but equally not the giant rack of ribs that over-balances the car in the opening credits of The Flintstones. All told, this is a deliberate and careful piece of late Golden Age plotting, and finds a fair amount of life among the death and bequests that normally give these events shape. And if anyone else wants to read this and The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head for a back-to-back compairson…well, read this one first!
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head from last week because in almost every regard — family gathering, avuncular homicide, narrative cause for questions over the corpse, bookish narrator, the love story, the secondary character who knows but won’t tell, cousins forming the ‘detective’ team, etc, etc — they are the exact same book.