When a man wrongly implicated in criminous deeds finds himself at the mercy of a blackmailer, is pushed to the limit by the blackmailer’s avarice, kills said blackmailer and goes to great lengths to cover up the crime only to find himself pursued by a highly-observant criminologist…you’re not the only one getting Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) vibes. And, Pottermack being one of my most delighted discoveries of the last couple of years, you’d expect The Heel of Achilles (1950) by E. & M.A. Radford to suffer by comparison, but it is in fact simply proof of how much richness the Golden Age was able to find in the same material.
Split by its authors into two parts, this is really more a novel of thirds: the first concerning the murder, the second following Dr. Harry Manson and his team as they unpick the how of the crime, and the third about identifying the who. The opening third, then, is perhaps the most conventional: a hard luck story of an innocent man led astray by an unscrupulous chancer with a hold over him from years before. When James Canley seeks to exploit this advantage for purely pecuniary ends, Jack Porter admits to himself that he must pay up — sees it as fair in its own way. But when Canley seeks to intrude on the security and happiness the essentially moral and honest Porter has made for himself, the situation becomes rather different. Canley, it is decided, must die, and Porter goes about this with an admirable ingenuity that nevertheless is clearly filled with several flaws and so brings Manson & Co. into proceedings.
Local Inspector Mackenzie, “whose features some freak of heredity has assembled into a perpetual expression of ferocity, so that to be in his company was like consorting with a man on the point of committing a violent assault”, isn’t too keen on the Scotland Yard bigwigs swooping onto his turf, of course, but, as Manson reflects, the infrequency of such a crime a murder in the provinces often demanded specialist intervention. And the blunt, unimaginative Mackenzie stands to learn a thing or two from Manson’s presence, as do we all, since Manson and his team are able, through no small number of canny observations, to recreate the murder almost exactly as it happened. Some of these indicators I was delighted to have spotted — the fingerprints on the bottle and glass, the footprints in the lane (which I carried over from a Paul Halter novel) — some I’ll confess to totally missing (the mark on the floor, the coat!), and some simply baffle me as to their inclusion (especially the cigar…).
What’s pleasing is how, in Manson uncovering these points, we’re also made aware by the authors of the errors and oversights he’s guilty of — a footnote here and there disabusing us of the notion that Manson is a soothsayer and reminding us that he’s as human as anyone. For all the mistakes you watch Porter make and that Manson brings to light, it serves as a great reminder that the detective can still be brilliant without always being correct. The level of complexity Manson is able to assimilate is impressive in its clarity and, if it gets a little dry at times (you can understand why Freeman preferred to spend his time making us sympathise with Mr. Pottermack) it’s also amazing for how clearly these developments are spelled out to the reader via Manson’s various forensic experiments and observations.
The matter of who also brings in some very interesting elements for how the investigation essentially has to start again, and how the lives of Canley and his circle draw a few likely suspects in (we have previously been provided with what we know to be a false alternative by Canley’s own actions). At times this might stumble — the hat, for one things, seems to be presented as a far less helpful indicator than we know Joseph French could easily turn it into — but the Radfords have the talent of Freeman Wills Crofts in bringing in the sheer width and depth of the police force when approaching such matters. Indeed, the Radfords allow for the individual personalities of the policemen involved to admit the evidence in a variety of different ways, which makes for a pleasing variation in tone in what is, after all, a pretty dense (though never far from fascinating) read.
You can fault this on its occasional ponderousness — there is a lot of explanation of fairly key concepts of detective fiction that surely don’t need to be spelled out so explicitly in 1950, and would be forgivable if published 25 years earlier — but that equally goes to underline just how much in the spirit of the Golden Age this is written. It possesses a certain meta-awareness of the genre (one character is referred to as “a Paul Pry”) that’s pleasing, and perhaps has also to cater for the less-fervid fanbase that 1950s crime fiction attracted — evinced no more clearly that in the six-page ‘lunch with the Chief Constable’ scene, which is an inexplicable, purposeless diversion given the rigour and focus elsewhere. It’s also remarkably cagey about when it takes place — the idea that someone can just decide to be known by a different name and move out of town to avoid detection feels very 1920s, but I can’t say for sure that you couldn’t also do this in 1950; for all the hints of “[X] was the custom at the time of this story”, why not simply make the year explicit? Also can anyone explain either the title — yes, I’m familiar with the concept of an Achilles heel, but I don’t see how it applies here — or what the cover’s about?
However, the very, very good here more than outweighs the occasional infelicity, and it’s chock full of contemporary touches — a man being carried “pick-a-back fashion” which I suppose was bastardised into ‘piggy-back’ over time, and a character starting a sentence “Re [this situation]…”, which I’d assumed was a product of the email subject line age — and even has time to outline two (very basic) locked room murders which make the prospect of the Death and the Professor (1961) collection that Dean Street Press has also reprinted very enticing. In his excellent introduction, Nigel Moss says that this is the first inverted mystery the Radfords wrote, and if there was a second I’d buy it tomorrow based on this experience. It might lack the heart of Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight, but to match it so ably for brains is no mean feat.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Heel of Achilles takes the classical approach to the inverted mystery with the first part telling the story of the murderer and his victim-to-be, showing every detail of “a cast-iron plot of murder” that “nothing could detect as being other than an accident,” while the second part unmercifully lays bare all the mistakes the murderer made along the way – ending the story on a somewhat depressing note. So the book is really two novellas in one that can actually be read as two separate, standalone tales of crime and detection.
The E. & M.A. Radford books reprinted by Dean Street Press
Murder Jigsaw (1944)
Murder Isn’t Cricket (1946)
Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) The Heel of Achilles (1950)
Death of a Frightened Editor (1959)
Death and the Professor [ss] (1961)