#526: The Julius Caesar Murder Case (1935) by Wallace Irwin

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This title had stuck in my memory from perusing Ramble House’s stable, and when I saw it listed in Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1992) — having not previously realised it was an impossible crime — I snapped it up.  Then it cropped up in the comments of a post at Brad’s place and it was as if the stars had aligned. The dedication to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler “with the author’s feeling that in distance there is security” hints that you’re not getting the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, and the opening line introducing “Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber” in 44 B.C., heavily implies that you’re clearly not getting a slavishly faithful historical epic, either.

The Julius Caesar Murder Case (1935) by Wallace Irwin occupies the fourth side of a triangle set up by Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, and A.A. Milne.  It has Crispin’s swift eye for absurdity and incident, Bruce’s bottomless inventiveness for overturning conventions and playing to the gallery, and Milne’s stumbling application of the detective plot to slightly underwhelming ends…somehow ending up a faintly frustrating novel of detection that throws open its arms to better embrace the rollicking ribaldry which makes it so ludicrously entertaining, yet in doing so doesn’t quite grip the necessity of plotting that Bruce displayed with a similar enterprise in the best of his Sergeant Beef novels (c.f. Case for Three Detectives (1936), Case with No Conclusion (1939), Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)).

But, goddamn, it is hilarious, though.  There’s a line to make you laugh on every page.  Scribo falling asleep on “one of those solid oak beds which made every Roman wish that somebody had enough get-up-and-get to invent springs”, the “personally designed .xxxii dagger” he keeps in his toga, lines like “a man can’t stab himself in the back, even if he is a politician”, or the narrative assertion that “Thackeray did the battle of Waterloo in a page or so, and on that scale [the battle of] Philippi should be worth, maybe, one tight little paragraph” — at times this feels less like a novel and more just a series of breaths between jokes.  And they’re very good jokes, covering the gamut from Scribo walking “like a pair of ice tongs” after an arduous horseback journey all the way up to characters berating each other for speaking in blank verse…Irwin has found a rich ore and mined it with prodigious asperity.

Special mention must go to Scribo’s interactions with his newly-acquired British slave Smith, surely one of the great sidekicks of GAD.  The inscrutable, Obelix-esque Briton — unbeatable in a fight, able to anticipate his master’s every need — is a masterpiece of British reserve on the page:

“I have taken the liberty of engaging you a rather fast litter.  The charge will be two denarii to the Wall and back.”

“Wonderful!  Do you read minds in Briton?”

“No, sir.  We’re not interested in other people’s minds.”

Or:

“Smithicus” said Manlius solemnly, “how loyal are you?”

“I’d lay down my life for you, sir, in a manner of speaking.”

There’s rarely a dull moment with Smith is on the page, and he makes the somewhat meandering plot go down a lot more smoothly than it otherwise might.  Concerning as it does the seemingly-unimportant murder of a favourite actor of the newly-appointed tyrant Caesar — and if you can’t spot the killer here, the door is that hole in the wall — it turns into a possible conspiracy against the Holy Roman Emperor that is played out in bath-houses, public bars, and at the Orphans’ Fresh Air Fund Gladiatorial Show where Scribo is enlisted as a Society columnist by his enterprising editor (who is keen to launch his paper printed on papyrus) and overhears Caesar being warned by a psychic to “beware the Ides of March!” — the day for which the putsch is fixed.

Caesar’s murder comes about two-thirds of the way through and, despite Irwin taking the time to lay out in detail the precise arrangement of the scene, it’s a little confusingly relayed (and not really impossible).  Again, if you can’t spot the killer here — in spite of the muddy description of what’s happening — I’d be disappointed, and really the only confusion I felt was whether some later aspect would warrant its inclusion in Adey.  But, no.  Caesar gets killed before the conspirators get their oars (or knives, I suppose) in, and the reason for history’s misunderstanding of the deed is explained in a piece of arch commentary that feels more like the purpose of writing this than any actual detective plot.  Also, the detection is hilariously badly wrangled — and, sure, you might argue that’s deliberate, but finding that key clue in the helmet of the ghost is…nonsense, just utter, total nonsense, and so amateurishly below the brilliant assurance of the tone throughout that it stinks up the whole place.

The motive, though, is actually quite good, and there’s one decent reversal tied to this that I very much enjoyed (and should have seen coming, so I can’t deny that Irwin got something past me).  And when Irwin takes the time to satirise the time in which he was writing — the black slave always being accused of the murder, say — he hits far more than he misses.  I suppose you can’t write a book about the murder of Julius Caesar without making it About the Murder of Julius Caesar, but divested of its detection elements this might just be a classic parody for the ages.  As it is, Irwin’s keen eye and inexhaustible supply of wit leaves the genre elements a little high and dry, giving us a valetudinarian murder mystery where something more vital was needed.  Its ADHD trappings commend it to the curious or those who love to see creativity o’erflowing its banks, but as more than a curio it’s difficult to be too laudatory.

~

See also

Patrick Ohl @ At the Scene of the Crime: All this is done with a sense of play and a genuine respect for the genre’s key staple: ingenuity. You see, the murder of Julius Caesar has a genuinely ingenious solution, one that I did not see coming at all. And not only that, you get all the clues that point out the murderer’s identity. I’m ashamed of my failure to solve the case because I should have seen the solution, but I didn’t.

14 thoughts on “#526: The Julius Caesar Murder Case (1935) by Wallace Irwin

  1. So let the debate begin. With the deliberate anachronistic dialogue, is this the first historical mystery novel, or do the jokes mean that It doesn’t count, despite predating Death Comes As The End?

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    • Doc, you’re a mind-reader: I did start trying to discuss this in the review, but it ended up a three-paragraph diversion that I couldn’t really justify. Let the arguments commence…!

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      • …is this the first historical mystery novel…

        Let the arguments commence…!

        The oldest historical mystery is Anne and Annabella Plumtre’s 1818 novella, “The Spectre of Presburg: A Hungarian Tale,” which takes place during the first half of the 18th century. End of argument. 🙂

        By the way, in spite of its flaws, this sounds like a fun and entertaining read. I’ll keep an eye out for it!

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  2. Oh this sounds like it’s definitely one for me, despite its ratiocinative inadequacies. Of course, my local library system has never heard of it . . .

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    • Ha, no, I doubt there are many copies of this in any library systems round the world. I mean, Brad has the best-stocked library in the world and so they’ve definitely got a copy, but the rest of us will have to rely on Ramble House to provide them 🙂

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    • Ramble House will do you an ebook for a good price — check out their website and email Gavin O’Keefe at the address provided

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      • This is all new to me. Their website doesn’t explain anything of what they’re about (that I’ve found) though I did find the link to this particular book. If I can just click there to make a purchase, why do I need to email someone?

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        • If there’s a link on the website for a copy from Amazon, yeah, you can use that with no problems. Your previous comment implied that it wasn’t available on Amazon — or not as an ebook, anyway — and if that happens with Ramble House books you typically used to be able to email Fender (who started RH) and request copies of any books not listed anywhere online. He’d work out a price, let you know, and then you could buy them direct from him. This was true of both physical copies of the books and ebooks.

          Fender has handed over the running of the RH website to Gavin (who — fun fact — designs their covers) and as far as I’m aware the same deal is still in place: if you want a copy of a book of theirs that doesn’t seem to be easy to find on Amazon or the usual places (I buy mine from Lulu.com), email Gavin and request a copy — physical or ebook — and he should offer the same service.

          Apologies, that wasn’t clear before. Took me a while to figure out that’s what you can do, and I forget that it’s a slightly odd system if you don’t know about it 🙂

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  3. I can always rely on you to bring us news of the weird and wonderful in crime fiction. Though do you think the author would have done better at writing a non-genre specific novel, rather than a mystery?

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    • As I say above, it’s very difficult to see how one could write about this event without making it the focus of the book, and the benefit of a mystery plot is that it can be twisted around all manner of trappings…but the mystery element here, certainly as a novel of detection, is easily the weakest. Given more of a thrillerish tone it would be far more successful, because, after all, one does want to get the impression that there’s some sort of focus to a novel (er, well, actually I suppose some people don’t worry about that…).

      Put it like this: if he’s written another historical book in this style, I’ll buy it tomorrow regardless of genre. If you told me he’d written a ‘straight’ novel of detection…I’d probably demur and get round to it in a year or three.

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