Identity and location, as I’ve said before, are really the two hooks on which a staggering majority of the detective genre hangs. And if you want to get the most out of the impossible shooting tale Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder — pseudonym of Detection Club alumnus Milward Kennedy — you’re going to need patience in figuring out the latter. Because while he has a good sense of character and action, as soon as anyone is required to go anywhere, or it becomes necessary to understand the internal layout of the ancient French citadel-cum-château that features so prominently, it’s as if his narrative powers desert him and he’s writing with a stick of celery.
Famously — possibly not ‘famously’, I guess, depending on how well-know it is — the second part of this novel consists simply of five diagrams done by our protagonist, artist Samuel Horder, showing the Château St. André and surrounds. I’d heard it said that it would be possible to solve the mystery of a man shot from the Tour Panteleon even though no-one there had a gun simply by looking at these diagrams, and that piqued my interest immensely. As it turns out, this isn’t true, but the diagrams are helpful in trying to understand Kennedy’s frank narrative stagnation when it comes to how people move around the château, and I referred back to these frequently each time a feature of the setting was utilised. It’s not exactly the smoothest of reading experiences, but I can’t deny the verisimilitude of such seemingly-unhelpful diagrams paired with the text.
It’s got me thinking about the use of diagrams, crime scene maps, and the like — something of a fascination of mine, you may be aware — in the genre, because here it feels both very new (the level of detail is really too great to be of proper functional use, as if Kennedy is stepping into something whereof he doesn’t quite understand) and sort of convention-overhauling at the same time (you’ll see what I mean if you read this). It brings to mind, not unpleasantly, the work of Anthony Berkeley in this regard, and prevents the slightly uninspired structure from damaging the reading experience too greatly. Being forced to really concentrate on the diagrams, and to work quite hard in matching them with the text, added to the experience for me, though your mileage will vary.
The key difference, I’d suggest, is that in Penny’s case it was actually true, since I defy anyone to get to the end of Part 3 and be able to devise the manner of how the shot was fired and the gun disappeared. You’ll get some glimmer of what’s going on — there’s a key clue that a better author from this era would have waved as a red herring, but it’s delivered with a subtlety that almost enables it to slip by — but the actual workings…no, not a chance. And, to be honest, the solution itself is more than a little simplistic and frustrating, as it’s about a fifth as clever as it needs to be given the very engaging and lively setup that has brought us to the point of revelation.
However, I don’t want Kennedy to cop too much flak here. The prose is very engaging, and he has a masterful use of tone — stick with the cocktail party you’re dropped into in chapter 1: yes, it’s annoying trying to keep track of who’s who, but the banter is perfectly-pitched for the occasion, and all but the two most memorable characters disappear from the narrative altogether after a few pages (there are a couple of thoroughly unimportant references to two of them later on). The utilisation of Real Tennis, while something of a gimmick, is also redolent with terminology and descriptions that slyly evince how confusing these sorts of things are to the uninitiated and uninterested…rest assured, this is a mystery novel, not merely a player’s guide masquerading as one.
So it’s a mixture of things. The prose is typically sharp enough that I’d read Kennedy again, but his use of invention in the impossible crime stakes disappoints, making me think that he’s not one of the genre’s lost great plotters. The characters are broad enough yet realised enough to provide a Christie-like level of familiarity, and it conforms to enough conventions and provides enough interest to pass the time. Very pleasant, very enjoyable, and a great (possibly intentional) riff on how information is provided to the reader, but hard to recommend as anything close to essential. I would love to know what anyone else thinks of those diagrams, though, and if you can recommend a Kennedy title please do so below.
Also, if you want to see a real life Real Tennis court, take a tour of Lord’s cricket ground in London — the one they’ve got there is brilliant.