I shall refrain from pointing out the similarities between The Shop Window Murders (1930) by Vernon Loder and The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen — Nigel Moss does an excellent job of that in his introduction of this reprint, and you’ll want your money’s worth. In short order we get dead bodies in a display in a shop window, and after the initial surprise of revealed identity it’s not long before Detective Inspector Devenish and the avuncular Superintendent Melis are on the scene to untangle possibly the most baffling range of clues seen this side of an early-period Queen novel. Oh, er, sorry about that. No more, I promise.
It’s a complex case, no messing, and Devenish and Melis are great company for the duration. They’re both very much ciphers in terms of their internal lives or personal whims — indeed, anything that doesn’t contribute directly to the plotting and clewing has been excised, including transitions from one location to the next: should your attention waver for a moment, you’ll miss Devenish crossing London, or getting a train out to the sticks. For all the comparisons that could be made with Freeman Wills Crofts, Loder has none of Crofts’ love of travel or the great outdoors — he’s here to log clues and take names, and there will be plenty of both. But his arguably characterless policemen and suspects have that Croftian touch of the wry in their dealings that betokens a firm respect and the low-key humour of men who know and trust each other:
“Come in, inspector. You’re the very man I want to see. One of our cheerful experts has upset your latest apple-cart, and I want to see how you propose to set it up on its wheels again.”
The investigation could almost be a microcosm of GAD compressed into a single book. From the exclusion of the servants in the matter of suspicion (the murder “doesn’t look like a job that one of [the sales assistants] would do” and so they get to go free early doors), to the clues so obviously screaming This person is guilty! that you know there’s no way in hell they are, via the casual assertion of something as a fact that later turns out to be the key to the whole shebang, it’s a whistle-stop tour of the genre. And for bonus points you get a dollop of British social hierarchy (“…men like him regard our class as banded together, and likely to confide in each other” is the way the suspicious actions of one working class man is justified by his obvious betters), some speculation on the Ways of Women (a woman of 23 consenting to marriage because “she would have hated to be an old maid”), and a soupçon of The War raising its head by way of explaining the casual expertise of a man regarding firearms, say, or the loyalty of one to another.
Loder is keen to all of this, however, and manages to somehow play a straight wicket while clearly not trying too hard to take it overly seriously. Employing a huge department store as his setting enables some playful hiding of evidence and provision of clues, with various departments coming in handy when specialist equipment is required, and the obscure touches that make up the core of the book (a foldable plane-cum-helicopter that you can build at home among them) are clearly discernible as the playful touches they’re intended to be. Additionally, the way the problem seems to sprawl in all directions, drawing in inventors, the nouveau riche, a slew of personal motives, and at least one unrequited lover, is either infuriating or mildly humorous depending on your mileage, and with each new development it feels the situation can’t get more muddled…and then it does, making even less sense than it did before. Rinse, repeat, enjoy.
To an extent, this is very much the opposite of the sort of book I imagine I’d look for — see as a counterpoint John Dickson Carr’s Death Watch (1935) which is almost the precise inverse of this: starting out deeply baffling and becoming startlingly clear by the end. Equally, it’s one of those Croftian tales in that there’s no staggering reversal of a clue having been dropped right in front of you; we’re at the nascent stages of the police procedural here, where you simply sit back and watch the intelligent design of patterns that emanate from the core problem, and trust intelligent men to do a professional job exhaustively. I’m a fan of Loder not needing to set up a long chapter for the sole purpose of a clue being discovered and instead just going “Oh, yeah, and we found this clue…” — there’s so much to discover and disclose in this narrative, that a more verbose approach would produce a book of Dickensian proportions — but at the same time my one gripe would be that I do so love to play along.
Still, I won’t fault the intelligence with which this is approached. There’s a mettlesome application of rigour in the speculations and conclusions drawn, with each step in reasoning questioned quickly and efficiently rather than left to hang through a lazy, slapdash rush to cheat a surprise out of you (the discussion about sailors’ knots, for instance, demonstrates a genuine acuity in the dark arts of misdirection…it’s just a shame Loder is more interested in the idea in abstract than in practice). There’s such a breadth of exuberance with regards the genre herein, I’d happily take any Loder recommendations if you have them — this reissue is a wonderful discovery for me of an author I’d very easily overlook, and I’d be delighted to make his acquaintance on another occasion. Don’t come for the emoting, don’t expect it to tug your heartstrings, and Loder’s prose reveals him as no bardolater, but for sheer sturm und drang of puzzle complexity it’s difficult not to recommend. Huge fun, a real delight, and showing once again how good reprints can be when they get it right.
John @ Pretty Sinister: This book is not only entertaining it may be Loder’s most complicated and original spin on a gimmick he seems to have invented. If he didn’t invent it, then he certainly perfected it. Other than in the work of Anthony Wynne, who has his own favorite tricks like the twice murdered corpse, I have yet to come across so many variations on such an odd idea for detective novel crimes. While I’m recommending this book I would suggest you keep your eyes out for any book with the Vernon Loder pseudonym on the cover. They make for fascinating reading and are as different from the standard whodunits of his colleagues as champagne is to soda water.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Loder builds up quite a mystery through what you could describe as a surfeit of clues, (missing bullet and weapon, more than one weapon, the role of the shop lifts, wheel prints on the roofs…), many of which the reader and the police know must be red herrings, faked up to mislead, yet the tricky part is trying to figure out the truth they are attempting to obfuscate. Still I think this book could probably win the award for mystery with most criminal fakery in it, along with the award for most unusual place for a suspect to get shot in.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Like Ellery Queen’s French Powder Mystery, it opens with a crowd discovering that shop window mannequins are really corpses. Unlike Queen, it’s not very good. The police have to sift through clues, false clues, manufactured evidence, and schools of red herrings before the culprit helpfully confesses. “It seemed to me the only thing was to make everything as confusing as possible so no one would be proved guilty,” X says. As an authorial technique, it has little to recommend it; I was indeed confused and bewildered, even with an A4 piece of paper covered in suspects’ movements.
The second part of The Men Who Explain Miracles episode on the rules of detective fiction is going up this Saturday, and after that I’m unlikely to be posting here in March. No drama, I just have a very busy month ahead with significantly more than usual demands on my time, and I doubt there’s going to be much reading or blogging done until April. I’ll still hang around in various comment sections and on Twitter, but the next activity here after the weekend will probably be on Tuesday 2nd April with some more Minor Felonies. Just, y’know, so y’know.