I feel as if I’m encroaching on the territory of John Norris at Pretty Sinister by reviewing a book that isn’t all that easy to come by; worry not, John, I don’t have well-enough stocked shelves to support this kind of habit, so it’s back to normal next week. This title is one that — like What a Body! (1949), The Rynox Mystery (1930), Death Has Many Doors (1951), and Dead Man Control (1936) — was brought to my attenion by the Roland Lacourbe library of highly-regarded impossible crime novels, though due to the absence of a French translation did not qualify for the main list. Well, as you can see from the rating above, I think our Francophone brethren are missing out.
We open in the home of police Divisional-Surgeon Dr. Daniel Britling, whose “persistence in doing what he termed ‘a little sleuthing’ on his own account when called to the scene of a crime” has earned him no small reputation as a criminologist in his own right. On this particular morning he receives an anonymous letter informing him that the financier Mr. Jubal Strauss will call upon him asking for his help, but as “[y]ou are not a professional detective…there is no reason why you should allow yourself to be drawn into an affair which is none of your concern”. Contained with the letter is an example of the writer’s harmful capabilities, along with a warning that if Britling involves himself in Strauss’ problems “[y]ou will die — swiftly and suddenly — without knowing from what quarter death has come”.
Upon Strauss’ arrival at 3pm, it transpires that he is one of a group of friends whose lives are similarly threatened from an undisclosed provenance, with Strauss informed that he will die that very afternoon at 5 o’clock. Britling, more aghast as being threatend than moved by Strauss’ plight, agrees to help, and the two of them head to Strauss’s cohorts who have besieged themselves at his father’s grand old isolated country house, with numerous ex-policemen and -prizefighters employed to guard them round the clock, a ten-foot wall topped by an alarmed tripwire, and countless other security measures. Despite taking many precautions, Strauss meets his death en route at the precise minute 5pm rolls around, leaving Britling in no doubt that he is facing an enemy of considerable cunning and reach. All this, incidentally, in the first seven pages.
The ‘someone is warned they’re going to die and then they do’ subgenre has plumbed the depths of Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King (though the ‘death on cue’ therein is actually pretty smart) and soared to the heights of Carter Dickson’s The Reader is Warned (1939). Ronald here has the gloomy foreboding of the latter, albeit infused with a propulsiveness and a freshness that manages to throw a houseful of distinct characters at you (I’d read a whole series based around Gideon Levison) and make their fear palpably realistic, while also showing the different responses these men and women have, without needing to pause the plot for much longer than the length of a breath before dipping into another gorgeously-written piece of exposition:
The timidest spinster in England would sleep untroubled by fear with a policeman’s comforting bulk in her hall, but he, who was the reverse of timid, he who had never known fear, drew no comfort from the policeman’s presence. The arm of the law was too puny a presence to shield him from the man who sought his life.