You know the drill: two men in a meeting, a shot rings out, one of them is found with a bullet in him, the other holding the gun that fired it. Stir in a “But he was already dead when I got here!” and simmer until an associate of an-amateur-sleuth-with-a-friend-in-the-police asks them to get involved (usually for personal reasons). That Off the Record (2010) follows this recipe so perfectly is a credit to how perceptively Dolores Gordon-Smith has assimilated the Golden Age detective novel, because never does it feel just like we’re jumping through hoops for the sake of it. The setup is familiar, but never less than engagingly handled.
And such a classically GAD setup cries out for a classically-styled GAD novel, which is exactly what the 1925-set Off the Record delivers. In terms of suspects, structure, motive, and era-appropriate attitudes — dark whispers of relatives who were felons, of madness running in families, or the manner in which one character’s background is revealed to have involved (sensation) an unofficial adoption at some point — it’s perfect, all the way down to our possibly overbearing victim and the “philanthropic tyranny” with which he views the world. We even get “a spate of burglaries in the villages roundabout” and a couple of clues that would have worked perfectly in the Golden Age — indeed, one of them is lifted almost wholesale from a Dorothy L Sayers novel…it’s a warming, enveloping cloak of GAD goodness, all the way from 2010.
Into this murder, then, swaggers Jack Haldean, detective-story writer and man-about-town who, through his friendship with Detective-Inspector William Rackham, is able to inveigle himself into the matter of how Charles Otterbourne came to die. And for the first half, while we find our feet in these classic waters, things seem to progress along an expected route, with a murder or two and a savage attack on an old man clearly forming some kind of pattern, but what? I had my bird picked out pretty early, despite a moderate effort at throwing dust into the eyes of any suspicion directed that way, and as we approached midway with a suicide in a hotel coming to light, I was wondering where things would go from there.
Well. Good heavens, this might be last time I take for granted the safety of any character in a Dolores Gordon-Smith book, because my word do a lot of people meet their clogs in the second half (by the time we get an anxious phone call that ends with the fateful “I could do with talking things over. I think I might have made a fool of myself”, any fictional sleuth with even a modicum of self-awareness would high-tail it out the door…!). And, as the murders pile up, the puzzle becomes commensurately complex and involved, with certain scenes cleverly presented to allow assumptions to be made and then revisited to show how neatly that assumption was introduced. And, as in the most delightful examples of GAD, we’re made aware of the workings of the plot even as the gears are grinding away in the background, with discussions concerning how our key suspect in it all ends up so obviously The Key Suspect that surely something must be dodgy, and our Amateur Detective saying things like:
“You must remember that my imagination is warped by writing detective stories, where a complete alibi is very suspicious indeed.”
The plot becomes increasingly difficult to talk about without spoiling things (there are two delightfully instructive episodes which could both be called The Man Who Wasn’t There), so I will just mention here how much I like Jack Haldean. He’s an affable, well-meaning man with something of a gift for insight that stops before he becomes a superman-detective but elevates him above the norm. And Bill Rackham gets to enjoy being one of the few fictional detectives with an AD on his arm not to come off as a yokel in comparison; together they are a very engaging central pair, working through deductions in a way that’s intelligent — the ‘sending a letter to the hotel’ episode is smart work — and incisive.
There’s also a great passage about halfway through, unrelated to the plot, concerning two magazines that are about to publish two very similar crime stories about poisoned politicians, with Jack called in to provide a replacement for his employer.
“Ours is about a poisoned shepherd’s pie and a Home Secretary but the principle’s the same. Damn these ruddy writers. It’s hard enough to tell the magazines apart as it is and if we start running the same stories at the same time, we haven’t a chance.”
I’m not going to claim for a second that this was the intent, but it got me reflecting on just how much overlapping ground the best (and, I suppose, the worst) Golden Age works covered. It’s phenomenal when you think of how little original ground remained within GAD after even a few short years, and yet how many variations the best (and, I suppose, some of the worst) authors were able to find. I’m also fascinated by Haldean’s replacement story of someone being killed by “an electrified window frame”, because the hero is “middle-aged and bearded” and “the beard’s important” — the mind boggles…
It’s fitting, then, that the eventual solution here relies on a trick that the Golden Age delighted in…and I could kick myself for not seeing it. In fact, pretty much every trick the whole way along is styled after something you could doubtless find in a detective novel from the 1920s, right down to the sheer volume of murders shortening the list of viable suspects past the point of the eventual reveal really being a surprise…but, I suppose, everyone’s mileage could well vary on that point. And, on an entirely personal level, it greatly amuses me to review two books in two weeks that make reference the the Red Queen’s beliefs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and any book that manages to include ‘otorhinolaryngological’ is surely worth a look, isn’t it?! Jack Haldean is fast becoming a favourite in this house, so expect there to be Trouble Brewing (2012) before too much time has passed.
Dolores Gordon-Smith reviews on The Invisible Event