Do you find yourself lulled into an erudite hebetude by too many stories blethering on instead of simply getting down to the plot and relevant incidents? Well, Max Afford’s fifth novel runs to 116 pages and probably doesn’t contain a single one that does not in some way contribute to the interpretations or solutions of the central conundrums. A sea-faring mystery in the Death on the Nile (1937) school, a small group of characters are gathered on a liner heading out from Sydney, Australia to some islands because…reasons…when mysterious phone calls, mysterious passengers, mysterious relationships, and mysterious pasts all converge for a cavalcade of enigmas wrapped in queries and shrouded in deepest sinisterlyness.
You sort of get the impression Afford was working to a deadline, because he really doesn’t hang about, but this in no way means he writes cheaply. A very experienced dramatist for radio, he has an eye for quick character beats and trenchant description that shows his class:
He was old. That was their first impression. Old and yellow and lined. And thin to the point of obscenity, shrunken in his dark, rumpled clothes like a chrysalid prematurely dead in its cocoon.
In true GAD style, just about everyone has some secret in their past — a dead spouse, status as a lamster, we take all kinds here — and the trip soon descends into some unusual events which are in no way aided by their calling at a nearby island to pick up more passengers…most of who also have secrets, passions, and plans of their own. Before you know it, someone’s threatening to reveal the Dark Secret of someone else…tomorrow, for some reason…and, mere a séance where an impossibly-appearing voice terrifies someone later, we’ve got murder in our midst.
If anything, and here’s something I never thought I’d say, this could almost do with a little more by way of connecting scenes just to give you time to sort out everyone’s tragic backstory or secret past. Some revelations are made openly, others reluctantly following certain other events, but, man, I had trouble keeping track of precisely which dead sister was secretly married to the milkman whose first wife was horrifically injured in the ballooning accident that the employer of the nephew’s older brother’s wife’s sister organised with little concern for safety…that’s not something that happens in this book, but it’s not far off. The people present are captured very well indeed — I love how, at the sight of the ship’s doctor, one character “immediately offered up silent prayers for a trouble-free voyage” — but too much tragedy is too hastily sketched in for it to be easily kept straight.
Anyway, most of the time you move too quickly for that to matter, as radio dramatist and author of “cheap blood-and-thunder stuff” Robert Morte and his wife carom around alternatively trying to solve and then ignore the mysteries that surround them. It’s not really detection, as come the end a lot of characters simply tell Morte what he needs to know rather than him figuring it out, and the one piece of detection that is involved is unfortunately not fair play (and a few extra pages could have fixed that…), but the imbrications of the various motives and actions are exceptionally well-handled given the brevity of the book and the range of people involved. Though it is rather frustrating that Afford sets up a classic GAD misdirect and then…doesn’t use it or even seem to remember it; I might steal it myself if I ever write a book (I mean, since he doesn’t even acknowledge it, it’s not technically stealing…).
So as a book it’s…fine; quick, to the point, inventive at times, frustratingly and suddenly unfair, a nice sniff of Gothic horror, capable of being better if a little more care had gone into it. I wanted to like it more, and there’s not really anything here to actively dislike, but of the five Afford books I’ve read this is easily the least essential. It will alleviate any concerns you may have to know that you’re perfectly able to pass this one over, but should you find yourself with a copy there are far less pleasant ways to spend a couple of hours.
The novels of Max Afford, published by Ramble House: