As discussed previously, we are here today to find out how good I am at spotting clues and things in the detective novel London Particular, a.k.a. Fog of Doubt (1952) by Christianna Brand. We’ll be doing this by examining my thoughts on a chapter-by-chapter basis and there will be spoilers. Do not read futher if you wish to remain unspoiled.
I’ll be honest: as much as I enjoyed this approach, it was a bit of an arse to do. Sitting down to write my thoughts on each chapter as I finished them meant that I had to be near my computer to read the book. There was no point taking it with me on the bus, since I didn’t want to think at the end of chapter 4 “Well, so-and-so is clearly a such-and-such” only for chapter 6 to reveal that so-and-so was most certainly not a such-and-such, because then when I came to write about chapter 4 I’d already know what had happened in chapter 6. Yeah, I could have taken a notebook with me, but I wanted to get my hot take down as quickly as possible, and I express myself much more clearly typing than writing long-hand (spelling mistakes and everything).
So, silly me.
Anyway, this goes on for long enough as it is without adding a long-winded introduction of needless complaint to it, so let’s dive in. I did this in three-chapter chunks, first reading chapter 1 and immediately writing up my thoughts, and then reading chapter 2 and writing up my thoughts, etc, etc. I set myself a target of 200 words per chapter in my summings up, and — you’ll just have to trust me on this — only changed what I wrote in that I corrected spelling errors and edited/rephrased so as to reduce them to that number of words. Once my thoughts on a chapter were recorded, they were not altered, because where would the fun be in that?
Hopefully that’s everything — remember: SPOILERS SPOILERSSPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERSbelow — now on with the show.
Goddamn, “The dank grey fog was like an army blanket, held pressed against the window of the car” is a wonderful opening sentence. I love this sort of in media res opening, saving us three chapters of character relationships before the fog and the phone call. And the atmosphere is beautifully tangible — “a ghost bus, a-glimmer with eerie lights” — with a real emphasis on the fleeting visuals rather than the deadened sounds (“the little car stealing through the muffled murmur of the fog-blanketed city like a marauding cat”). I’ll probably struggle to take a character called Tedward too seriously, especially post-Jedward, but let’s see how we do. And let’s get a prediction in early: Tedward is the killer and this ruse of being lost is simply to enable enough time to pass for the victim of his attack to actually die. Well, you were all thinking it, weren’t you? And I also think it’s weird that a dying man knows who to call and should take the time to specify which type of mallet he’s been hit with: surely, “Someone hit me, I think I’m dying, come quickly” should suffice. It also seems a long conversation for a man who thought he was dying…
Okay, I wasn’t expecting a chapter on illegal abortions, but look at the delightful character work here: “a young dog who had subsequently proved to be up to some very old tricks”, “the unerring cunning of the intensely stupid”, “a serious, though not very well-informed, Communist”. For what’s probably a taboo subject given the era, Brand does great semi-comedic work here with Rosie’s story trotted out, changing and changing again to suit her audience, the girlish one-upmanship between her and Melissa is a beautiful piece of ‘show’ to contrast against those trenchant ‘tell’ observations. True, this is very much in that ‘character relationships’ idiom that I disparaged above, but at least it’s done with some purpose, providing a sense of the characters beyond merely their relationships to each other, and linking in the possibly dying Raoul Vernet. Interesting, too, the contrast in responses between the generations: Granny and Tedward and Matilda unwilling to countenance the idea of abortion, Melissa willing but unable; only Damien responding with more than a generational reactionism, and easily a figure of fun before it even came to that. And are we to infer that Raoul is responsible for Rosie’s condition?
Now we finally get everybody together: Raoul coming to dinner, Matilda reflecting that “she was not so vast that a good black dress couldn’t still do wonders for her”, and Thomas coming into view with a heart “buried under so many layers of reserve and detachment that if he broke it over this affair…there was no knowing how to apply the balms that might help mend the heart of an easier man”. Brand does excellent work giving the house a sense of function without overplaying it — again there’s a light comedy in the closing sequence beginning with Gabriel the poodle expecting “walkie-palkies” and the subsequent chaos that erupts — and helps this feel like more than simply a convenient house, soon to be fog-marooned, in which someone is going to die. In particular:
There was no chance of a flood in the desert and very little of earthquake or fire so they ought to have a quiet morning.
Melissa was…making some pastry with thumpings and bangings and rollings that went to Matilda’s heart. No wonder she suffers from backaches, she though; not to mention indigestion.
are simply exquisite. Not much plot here, I’m guessing, but, dude, these already feel like people.
Despite her tendency to leap from one perspective to another without warning, I do so love Brand’s writing: “she respected the honest idealism which drove him to improve the world in which he, himself, had not yet learned to live” is another diamond of character-by-observation (Matilda this time, not Damien), as is “she did not want a too constant reminder that her beautiful memories had turned out rather shame-making delusions after all”. I was not initially convinced of the slamming door signalling Exeunt Damien, but we see him at the end of chapter in his meeting elsewhere and so he can’t be waiting in the house to kill Raoul, and obviously the note for Thomas (“Ten weeks. D and V. Three days”) could be as much a ruse by the killer to get him out of the house as written by Thomas to give himself an alibi (he’ll doubtless return having been ‘unable’ to find the address, and naturally no-one will have seen him in the fog), but that feels rather obvious. Heaven alone knows whose embrace Rosie has found herself in, or where or why Melissa is pacing “like a tigress baulked of its prey”. But — oh! — what a wonderful line this closes on.
Okay, so Tedward didn’t kill Raoul — in chapter 1 it’s a five-minute journey between the houses, and he’d take longer than that in the fog despite being out of the room for “five minutes” getting the car out. But it’s interesting that he isn’t present when the phone call comes through (viz. Thomas’ “D and V” message in chapter 4). So Rosie could have phoned Matilda to see if Raoul had left as discussed and been told that she, Matilda, had just killed him and so they cooked this up between them (“Heaven knows Tilda was a maniac about the baby’s routine” — allowing her to be ‘out of the room’ when the killing took place); but she’s been upstairs for the whole time Rosie and Tedward are driving over? Hmmm. And Thomas may be “half a mile away”, but he could have driven that far in the fog after killing Raoul and before turning around to make it look like he’s been out. As for Damien and Melissa, who knows? But they all seem too obvious. My money’s on old Mrs. Evans, “panting, her wig awry” as if following some exertion. She’s thrown something out the window that struck the leaving Raoul, and this is all cooked up to save her from the gallows.
The police suspect Thomas, so it’s not Thomas, even if “Cockie…could well imagine Thomas hitting somebody over the head and killing them”. Rosie is denying that Raoul — a “stuffy old thing” who “was a bald as a coot” — fathered her child…except, well, she doesn’t actually deny it, and she also doesn’t appear picky about whom she flirts with (by implication she was doing it with the phone operator at the start of this chapter). Thomas, as expected, failed to find the address and so is conveniently unalibi’d, but given Melissa’s man and his need to be “careful” I’m wondering if the two of them aren’t having a liaison — he invents the patient on her night off so they can canoodle without arousing suspicion. Hence Melissa’s sick feeling — keeping quiet allows the man she loves to be accused of murder, but speaking out…well. However, I’m going to jump on Matilda having “unhooked” Gran’s wig; I’ve no idea what this involves, but it would indicate some precursor to removing it. Nevertheless, Gran was still wearing it — albeit “awry”, see chapter 5 — and nothing in Matilda’s testimony explains the “panting” mentioned contemporary to that awryness. Hey, if I’m wrong, at least I’m being misled by details…
Sure, sure, there may be DOCTOR and a phone number by every phone in the house, but I’m still not buying that Raoul actually made that phone call. Nice try, along with all that talk of “lucid periods” after receiving a head wound to explain how he lived long enough to do so. And since it was Stanislas who Rosie was cavorting with outside the house before going to Tedward’s, why didn’t he show himself at the Evans’ house after he and Rosie had gone their separate ways? I’m not buying for a second that Melissa was meeting him, I’m holding out for Thomas. As for what Damien and Melissa got up to that’s left him limping and her in his debt — maybe Raoul died as suggested above and they’re the ones who covered it up: dragging the body back inside, phoning Tedward and pretending to be Raoul (the old, lazy standby ‘a foreign accent is easy to fake’ could be trotted out here), Damien injuring himself in the process. And how gorgeous a description is “His square brown face broke into a thousand delighted wrinkles”? And I thought Cockie and Charlesworth both were responsible for solving Death of Jezebel (1948)…
Classic detective fiction never really dwelt much on morgues, did it? I don’t recall another GAD novel — though, admittedly, 1952 is a bit late to call this GAD — talking about the sewn up corpse, or even mentioning the pathologist beyond a confirmation of cause of death (“He died from a single whack over the coconut” — Carr would have poisoned him, just for the fun of it). Also, does Melissa’s flashback with its “glimpse of clay-white fingers still clutching the telephone receiver…” imply that she actually found Raoul like that, or is this a deliberate piece of misdirection? I’m still holding out for Mrs. Evans — I forgot to mention above how convenient it was that the mastoid mallet could well have been in a bureau upstairs — and some sort of cover-up to protect her. That whole section on how easy it would be for anyone to kill him all seems too engineered to misdirect, and the frankly specious nonsense about threatening him at gunpoint which comes out of nowhere here feels very cobbled together and half-arsed for someone of Brand’s skill. My solution has a lot in common with that Chesterton story, it occurs to me now, but that doesn’t preclude it outright.
How have I not noticed before that apparently everyone stood around for ten minutes with a dead body in the hall before Thomas arrived? That seems a very long time to just…stand there staring at a surprise corpse. Maybe Thomas was there after all, and they sent him away precisely because, as the only doctor on the premises, he’d be the one who’d likely fall under suspicion, exactly as Cockie has deduced (this would, at least, explain the blood on the mat in the car). The “comes in” vs. “comes down” nit-picking seems simply a space-filler to argue out a previously-achieved answer rather than as part of a logical chain, since would someone not have “come in” to the room to hit Raoul? And at last it is suggested that perhaps it wasn’t Raoul on the phone — specifying the type of mallet being rather suspicious as I said above (yay!), so it’s only a matter of time before it transpires someone put on a ‘foreign’ accent and Rosie was too dim to notice any difference. Also, notice how “the old lady” is an afterthought, not seriously considered in the case. Jeepers, my reputation will never recover if I’m wrong about this…
Sure, I started off suspecting Tedward in the very first chapter, but the ruse by which we’re supposed to think him guilty — Cockie ringing the back-door bell that conveniently sounds like a telephone bell, and Rosie not noticing the difference in origin of the sound and so answering the phone — is…shit. As a piece of misdirection, too, it makes little sense: either a) he’d have to be in consort with Thomas, by earlier faulty reasoning, with Thomas killing Raoul at a time that required Rosie to be at Tedward’s so that Tedward could fake a phone call in order to…what? No, that makes no sense. Or b) Tedward and Rosie arrive in the car and Tedward killed Raoul when he went inside the house…but that seems a bit risky since he was only taking Rosie back because he reckoned Raoul would be gone by then. I mean, if Raoul had gone, what then? Man, for spinning potential solutions out of the fabric of the story as presented, this strains a lot harder than is becoming for someone of Brand’s reputation and talents. Death of Jezebel did this brilliantly, but it feels here like it’s being done because DoJ did it brilliantly.
I killed Raoul! And I killed Raoul! And I killed Raoul! And I especially killed Raoul! Ugh. Still, Mrs. Evans is drawing attention to her wig — picture me, looking smug, though why she needs her wig on to kill a man is a little lost on me, unless in collecting the wig she found the mallet in the drawer — and there’s something very charming in the twinkly-eyed admission of her affectations. Also, how appropriately heartbreaking is this?:
“And it was quite a gift, Inspector, it really did amount to a touch of genius to be able to flirt in those days — so gracefully and delicately, to be able to break hearts just a little and not too much; and one’s own heart not at all.”
And while Tedward claims option b) above, I’m pleased to see that he’s as confused as I am over whether Raoul fathered Rosie’s child. I suppose Rosie is pregnant? She’s presented as enough of an air-head that she could well be mistaken. But then Dr. Tedward has examined her and proclaimed it so, or at least been taken in by it, and we’ve no reason to suspect he’s anything less than competent. Oh, well, onwards.
We didn’t really see the aftermath of the discovery, so perhaps Thomas got in Tedward’s car or vice-versa and that’s how the blood got transferred? I don’t know, and I don’t believe it will be important. Still, Mrs. Evans could not “have lifted those feeble arms and felled man to the ground” — would the mallet be too heavy to throw out a window? I’m cooling on this theory, but mainly because my brain has pulled everything apart and it’s getting a little boring. All this thinking every point over — does anyone ever read a book in this way? And if so, do they enjoy it? Surely it’s more fun just to pick up on a few pointers but in the main simply let a book happen to you. As for Damien, he’s fallen somewhat out of the picture, eh? And what does his mother’s “pet lodger” collecting subscriptions have to do with anything? Anyway, despite Rosie’s claim to the contrary, Tedward remembers her being there at his shoulder when he entered the house, so he’s out of contention. You have to wonder why she’d lie about it, unless she wants him found guilty to protect someone else. Oh, well, she’s dying now.
I had entirely forgotten about Tedward giving Rosie those drugs, and it feels like the ‘murder by suggestion’ conclusion is reached a little easily, but let’s look into that. It seems unlikely anyone who had previously insisted Rosie keep her baby would transmogrify overnight into someone then egging her on to take extra abortifacients — and surely even poor, sweet dozy Rosie would have been a little suspicious. So this leaves Melissa, the only one who at least made overtures to helping her in chapter 2. Can it be so coincidental that Rosie knew something damning about Melissa and Melissa happened to be the only person who’d support her in her abortion (a conversation which occurred before the murder of Raoul Vernet, lest we forget)? But, well, Melissa already thinks she can say a single word and name the murderer — meaning it’s not her — so it’s more likely there’s someone she is protecting who Rosie had some knowledge about and therefore needed to be dispatched. And since Thomas thinks Tedward can support him over the blood in the car, that leaves Damien and Matilda — unless Melissa is in love with Tedward and not having an affair with Thomas. Oh, mercy, I don’t know.
Hairy Aaron, I appreciate there will still be a shock in store somewhere, but ‘I did this action which resulted in damning evidence and then I forgot it and someone was able to remind me that something different happened’ is simply the worst type of plot reversal. This is as bad as the inquest in Anthony Berkeley’s Not to be Taken (1938) [Editor’s note: a 500-word tirade on the subject of that book has been excised from this entry]. Tedwards parking his car in front of Thomas’ garage so that Thomas could not have put the car away as previously claimed comes out of nowhere, I even went back and checked the earlier chapters to see if any mention is made of it that I’d forgotten — nothing. I’m very annoyed. Given the dramatic closing line for this chapter (“The dead hand of Rosie reached up and jerked the noose tight.”) you get the impression Brand just wanted a moment of high drama after a lot of conversation and not much in the way of excitement. This is Brand’s equivalent of the Second Late Murder, except she’s already done a Second Late Murder (Probably), and it’s all ended up a bit of a damp squib. I feel the edge of my patience beginning to give now, I’ll be honest.
Urf, I do so hate chapters of court proceedings or inquests that do nothing but restate the various events up to that point — and Brand is still hiding that ten-minute window between Tedward and Thomas showing up (notice how Matilda is ushered out of the dock with a wry observation about the stenographer having to write a lot and hoping for someone more taciturn as the next witness…I can’t tell if that’s good misdirection or simply frustrating writing). I didn’t see anything worth spotting here beyond the strict adherence of Matilda’s in the habits and events of raising her child…but I consider it unlikely she killed Raoul because she’s such a stickler for detail and he wouldn’t let her go upstairs at the appointed time. I’ll admit to skipping a few bits here, but this is at least partly due to how the reading of this has been so interrupted — it’s becoming a bit of a pain to always have to read within reach of my computer, since I normally read in a variety of locations. Man, talk about projection; will I enjoy this book less because I haven’t been free to read it in my normal way?
As much as Melissa’s evidence that she’d seen the body before and the household were responsible for turning the corpse onto its back is supposed to be a shocking revelation, it’s really a cheat, innit? I mean, when you don’t see these events when they occur in the narrative, you can throw in anything you like in the final 15% of the text. Equally Damien’s involvement — frustratingly, all we know (well, technically, all that’s implied) is that he comes up after Melissa takes the dog out for a walk, sees the body in the hallway, and immediately runs out of the house. Goddamn, how many times are we going to be guided right up to something meaningful only to be steered away at the last moment? And wasn’t Melissa convinced earlier that she could name the murderer? So why didn’t she say anything when pouring out her story in the dock? Nothing in her version of events, not that we were made privy to, points a finger at anyone. Arguably this chapter ties up some loose ends, but only because Brand had dragged all manner of non-mysteries that don’t realistically contribute anything across the trail. I sure hope these final two chapters are worth it…
I am done with this fucking book never telling you anything that actually happens whenever you get near a key moment — goddamn, even when Mrs. Evans gets in the witness stand and rambles on and on about pancakes and is about to confess to throwing the mallet down onto Raoul’s head, we get this:
Mr. Justice Rivet thought that it would be best if the witness would now retire.
Because of course! In the middle of a murder trial, when someone is about to give key testimony implicating themselves your natural response is that it would be a good time for them to stop talking. It’s telling just how far we’ve strayed from the Golden Age, because of how many last-minute declarations and revelations and implications can just be jammed into the narrative without a whit of concern for anything that’s come before. Need the fog to make it difficult to find your way? Done. Need Damien to make it to the house in the fog in no time at all so that he can be on hand to be suspected later? Equally done. I’m going to say now that whoever it turns out to be, there’s no way in hell the reader could have solved it.
Ha, so it was Tedward all along, and there really was no way you’d ever be able to solve it. I consider this whole mystery a series of massive cheats, because while you’re arguably led to believe he was only away from the car for a short time and that’s your fault, too much else is too much nonsense: the ‘fake phone call’ ruse (there’s nowhere near enough information provided for you to know that’s even possible, never mind correct), the fact that he apparently does use the gun to threaten Raoul so that he can then strike him with the hammer…how does anyone even guess that? You may say I’m annoyed because I didn’t solve it, but be honest — we want to be surprised and caught out by something clever (and, hell, if my ego was that fragile I’d just edit in loads of little things that would turn out to be correct, rather than ‘Melissa and Thomas are having an affair’, etc). But there’s nothing clever here, no decent fair play, no genuine misdirection, because every time you get near anything the scene changes or the characters faint or something and so anything meaningful is always off page. A huge disappointment.
Okay, there’s a huge amount to discuss, but I might do that in the comments rather than go on here (you’re already 4,000 words in if you’ve read this far — check out your commitment!). Suffice to say, I’m not impressed with this one, and will happily explain further if anyone is still curious enough to ask.
Before we go, a brief mention of some others who also saw fit to take on this chatper-by-chapter challenge after I announced I’d be doing it here. Firstly Puzzle Doctor looked at Fear and Trembling (1936) by Brian Flynn, a book not many of us will possibly ever get the chance to read, but I enjoyed the opening stages greatly, to the extent that I stopped reading in the hope it will eventually get republished (that’s a new one, eh? “I enjoyed this so much I just had to stop reading it…”). Two people also took on The Red Widow Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson: Phinnea at RavenscroftCloud and Brad at AhSweetMysteryBlog. Hopefully they all had a more organised time doing this, and didn’t chain themselves to a computer during a heatwave…
And a special mention for Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, who read and reviewed this one in the run-up to this post. It’s lovely to think anyone pays even the vaguest attention to what goes on here, and I really appreciate you all getting on board with this in your different ways — many thanks!
Finally — with a full and frank acknowledgement of your forbearance — on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category During a weather event.