I have never quite understood the preoccupation with the Oxford v. Cambridge: Dawn of Justice boat race; it reeks of a class consciousness that belongs in an older, less enlightened time and should, therefore, be a perfect match for my beloved GAD. And so here we are, with Swartwout coxing the 1930 Cambridge crew to victory and so having an insider’s eye that should provide plenty of contemporary interest. And a locked bathroom with a dead body in it, too, the key found on the floor inside once the door is broken in…and this after a discussion about detective fiction and how to go about committing a baffling murder that name-checks Freeman Wills Crofts. Sounds good, right? Well, it isn’t, for quite a lot of reasons. Let’s attempt to explain them.
Firstly, that class consciousness. I know this is a pervading theme in GAD, but it’s not something that usually intrudes upon my enjoyment. The Cambridge University rowing eight are a bunch of interchangeable braying, brash idiots who bicker and call each other names, the policeman assigned the case is a public school-educated war chum of the coach…almost everyone else is a forelock-tugging lackey or semi-literate grouch who resents their obvious betters and says things like “Shockin’ business! ‘Ooder thought it!” but whose base nature also makes them conveniently apodictic once plied with a couple of pints.
The difficulty comes when Swartwout is unable to decide whether to castigate the celebration of such classism or to simply revel in it. On one hand there’s a sly elbow at the coroner’s wearying verbosity when opening the inquest, yet the over-reaction of a tabloid press printing “hysterical onslaughts on the whole university and public school system” implies the latter. Swartwout also takes the time to upbraid his detective for walking on the grass when visiting a Cambridge college, and is incapable of giving us someone not educated at public school who isn’t a moron or — when he really puts some effort in — a surly moron. And there’s more dialogue of this type than I’m strictly comfortable with simply putting down to tone-deaf bygone attitudes:
“Young and physically fit men don’t kill themselves just because they’ve had a row with a rowing-coach! I’ve read of a Dago who shot himself because he was left out of a football team, but Englishmen don’t do that sort of thing.”
Secondly, our detective, Angus MacNair, is bland and dull and boring and undistinguished, only making any kind of impression when he shares a key clue with a suspect and then wonders after the fact whether perhaps he, the policeman in charge of the case, ought maybe not to’ve done that…but is puffed full of indignation at the idiocy of a colleague (previously taken to be a tip-top man) who shares legitimate relevant information with another professional in a way that is entirely justified. Equally McNair gets a lot of startlingly undisciplined speech such as:
“This book, amongst several others, had been recently borrowed from Brown’s library, and several of them read it. At any rate, Lloyd certainly did. I can’t be sure of the others. I am more inclined to believe he saw to it that none of the others read it.”
Holy shit, man, pick a lane!
Additionally, there’s the presentation of the crime. Swartwout wants it to be a mystery how in any way the murder could have been committed yet the door locked on the inside…but within two pages of the police pondering this we’re given any number of possible explanations of how this could have been achieved (all false, of course, but in no way unachievable). So it doesn’t qualify as a locked room problem, and it’s not as if he dreamt up a particularly ingenious method — I thought of it as soon as the problem was presented — or an especially ingenious piece of clewing — the guilty party confesses all come the end — to justify a clever piece of detection of canny ratiocination. It’s one of the most tin-pot locked rooms I’ve yet encountered, and that’s saying something.
In fact, on the subject of that clewing, even the clewing is shit. In order for the police — the sole interesting note in the entire book is their repeatedly being called ‘Roberts’, which I’ve not seen before and rather liked — to come to any conclusion at all, the guilty party leaves behind a trail of clues so goddamned stupid and inexplicable that he might as well have just killed the victim, stood there singing a song until everyone turned up, immediately confessed, and explained everything as soon as the police turned up. Because these are not clever clues, they are clumsy (a coded message, which would take so long to write and read that you’d probably outlive your victim while planning their murder) and left in the most hilariously stupid places (pencilled in the back of a book, and then rubbed out with insufficient rigour to be properly obliterated) that it just…I can’t even be bothered. You get the idea. It’s awful.
And don’t even get me started on the man who, about to divulge the name of the guilty person, is then shot and prevented from doing so. This is Nineteen Thirty-Three! This book is a contemporary of Lord Edgware Dies, The Hog’s Back Mystery, The Bowstring Murders, Murder Must Advertise, and about as representative of the age in which it appeared as the sporting event that inspired it is of the society that continues to perpetuate its importance. Upon which devastating barb I retire from this whole sorry experience.