I’m on a bit of a Ramble House kick at the moment: Rupert Penny, Norman Berrow, Walter S. Masterman, with E.C.R. Lorac coming soon. The Perjured Alibi (1935) is my third Masterman title to date, and I’d intended this to be where I’d make the decision whether or not to persevere with him. But, well, I have a copy of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1991) now and that’s got me thinking that I should at least give the remaining couple of impossibilities a go — especially as it turns out Ramble House have recently republished his debut The Wrong Letter (1926), which I’ve been after for a while. So it would be churlish to stop here…
And, as it happens, this is the most enjoyable experience I’ve had reading Masterman so far: the plot is built on far clearer grounds than The Border Line (1937), composed of elements which not only fit together more cleanly but are also more comprehensible in how they contribute to the whole, and the pacing is a definite improvement over that of The Baddington Horror (1934), with the eventual scheme reliant on less Dickensian melodrama even if it does feel about 15 years too late (but we’ll get to that…). This rattles along, is full of distinct thumbnail-sketch characters — including a man accused of murder who is, frankly, an arse of the highest order and all the more wonderful a creation for it — has sufficient conflict and interest to motivate its actions, and it even manage a non-mawkish love story. The shame of it is getting to the end and going “Oh, so the plot of this book is…hang on is that it?!“.
Dennis Tracey, listless in the heat of a London summer, decides to belatedly take up the (itself somewhat belated) invitation of his old Service friend Kenneth Darent and visit the latter at his family countryside pile in the village of Crowfield. But Darent has undergone a change in the five years since the two last met and is now an aggressive alcoholic living in the decrepit ruin of a country estate, tended to by three devoted servants who haven’t been paid in years, and has become something of a joke in the locality. Tracey’s arrival also couldn’t be timed much worse: it is the eve of the wedding of the rector’s daughter Margorie Browne to local magnate John Barton, and Darent has been in love with Margorie for years. So it’s a relief to everyone when Darent storms out of the house in a drunken rage and heads to Barton’s house to interrupt the pre-wedding party (is this a thing?) and comes back covered in blood claiming to have found Barton’s battered dead body lying on the lawn.
Not, sorry, not ‘relief’. The other one. Nightmare.
Darent swears he didn’t kill Barton, and Tracey believes him, and so the eponymous alibi is cooked up…and when Darent is arrested on the strength of the physical evidence (at about chapter 4, so don’t worry if it seems I’m giving a lot away), Tracey must decide whether to perjure himself in order to buy time to carry out an investigation, or whether to step aside, let things take their course, and possibly get the increasingly lovely Margorie all to himself in consolation… Around this, Tracey must also feel his way within a cast of people he does not know and may not be able to trust, and there will be clandestine meetings in churches and summerhouses, a collaborator from a surprising quarter, cigarette ends, blackmail, and all manner of skullduggery before things are resolved.
It. Is. Very. Enjoyable. It’s in no way revolutionary, but there’s a clarity in the actions and events that rings true — everything is kept very minor and low-key, but the characters divide into clear camps, and each plays their role on either side perfectly, hindering or helping Tracey as is their wont, and for reasons that are clear if not always immediately obvious. Masterman also does a brilliant job of justifying this, keeping the ruling passions of such a small community in the eyes and minds of those here present, contrasting the anonymising urban sprawl of London with the smaller scope and longer memory of country folk:
“I always think that one is nearer to death and nearer to God in a village than in a city. There people are hurried away to some far-off cemetery, and forgotten. Here they are present and real, and living still among us.”
Tracey is one of those stage 4 hot-heads who get all hot under the collar because someone vaguely might possibly imply something, and he’d get boring were it not for Masterman surrounding him with far more interesting and subtle souls. The delightful Miss Morris needed a series of her own — you can see her steering things from the background of about 30 books, like Miss Marple in A Pocketful of Rye (1953) but more malignant — and the emerging relationship between Tracey and Margorie is, for once, handled perfectly: her delight is in his attempts to help Darent, and his delight comes in seeing her happy. This, you feel, must end badly for someone…
And the person it ends badly for is the reader, as the final 40 pages turn into a sort of late-Victorian melodrama, complete with a Macguffin that Masterman puts in purely because what he had planned was too obvious and so he wanted to mix it up. And it would work well in about 1918, but by 1935 things were a little more progressed narratively and it just feels…late (in particular, the late appearance of two items is only realistic if someone knew they’d be needed for this exact plot…!). A sufficient amount of invention come the end almost rescues it — the final line in particular is wonderful — but when you realise that this development is that Masterman has been building towards, it’s also inescapable that he’s gone about it the long way round. A certain Croftian commitment to his milieu is commendable, but my experience of Crofts to date is that he always makes his circumstances count. Masterman, while entertainingly, has nevertheless been treading water, and it’s a shame to have it sag a bit come the closing ‘surprise’.
But an improvement in so many ways, and so onwards to The Wrong Letter…
Walter S. Masterman reviews on The Invisible Event, available from Ramble House:
The Baddington Horror (1934)
The Perjured Alibi (1935)
The Border Line (1937)
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Smokers of Hashish from last week because a major character in that is called Hafiz and the epigraph in this is from ‘Certain Maxims of Hafiz’ (1888) by Rudyard Kipling
And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card this fulfils the category During a special event.