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.
And so people die, one by one, with Ronald smart to the scope for misdirection and impersonation, discussing them openly with the reader and employing many clever schemes in plot elements not solely related to the murders. It’s a book which overflows with invention in this regard, cannily using the air-tight security measures against the denizens of the house, and when one character is left wondering if it’s “humanly possible…to kill a man who was alone in a room, the door of which was locked an bolted, the windows of which were shut and securely fastened”, well, I think we all know how that will turn out. True, some of the methods employed might be a little hoary, but there’s a creativity around them which helps atone in certain regards for that (the balloons, for one, are an enjoyably eccentric touch, as is the man shot three times in the head with unerring accuracy while driving at high speed).
Pleasingly, too, we get an explanation as each death occurs, rather than waiting for our Genius Amateur to wrap it all up with a big speech come the end. The ‘play along at home’ aspect is a trifle compromised as a result, but structuring it this way at least makes the absence of true fair play more tolerable (little is more frustrating that waiting for the Big Soliloquy to be told something you had no chance of ever knowing; best get it out of the way quickly). The only real fault I can lay at the feet of this — unsurprising, given its pulpy nature — is that the whole enterprise devolves into a rather uninspired chase-n-shoot once the villain is known, and I feel like what came before deserves better (it’s easy to forget that the tendrils of ‘sensation’ fiction were still wrapped around the edges of this genre even into the 1930s, since we tend to view this as a prime Golden Age era). Still, Ronald emerges here as a writer of no small talent, and I look forward eagerly to the other books of his that I have tracked down.