The discovery of a bullet in a body in a fire in “one of the most peaceful and law-abiding parts of Thameshire” ushers in a game of Murder or Suicide? that will be familiar to the seasoned GAD reader. And since the Chief Constable would “rather have a few murders than [Scotland Yard] nosing round in his area” it falls to his nephew, constable Laurence Sadler, and Sadler’s superior Inspector Trenton to get to the bottom of Antony Mullins’ death. But even Sadler and Trenton, as the local men, are unprepared for the characters who seek to inveigle their way into proceedings, and the complexity that will unfold as a result.
The Perfect Alibi (1934) is the third novel by Christopher St. John Sprigg, and reinforces the impression from Death of an Airman (1934) that the genre lost a real talent when he was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Far from sticking too closely to the limits of one facet of Golden Age detection, Sprigg emerges here as a farceur of some considerable skill, deftly throwing just about everything he has into the mix, and emerging with a book that, like the best novels of Anthony Berkeley, is as much a commentary on the detective novel as it is an excellent example of the form.
For a start, Sprigg has an eye for the rigours and expectations of the genre, with the Chief Constable pointing out that “we neither think [a suspect] guilty nor innocent. I hope he will survive our scrutiny. The point happens to be that he is the obvious suspect, and we go for him first”, while elsewhere Sadler rues the collection of a key piece of information in front of the suspect it implicates: “you now know as much as I do”. Throughout, while clearly having his fun, Sprigg is always a slave to the machinations of his plot, turning aside what might have been tropes and easy explanations other writers were happy to wallow in to avoid difficulties — speculation about impersonation, say — while his coterie of characters engage in such behaviour as faking alibis, leaving guns in unlocked drawers, and having conversations that are so earnest in tone you just know they’ve both got the wrong end of different sticks.
Against this, the inevitable commentary then begins to seep in: “the first murderer is never the real one. It’s generally the third. Or the fourth” someone reflects when an answer to the puzzle is found at the halfway point, which we know is going to turn out to be prophecy. Equally, Sprigg’s series amateur sleuth Charles Venables takes one look at the complex skein and immediately leaves the country, not wishing to have his reputation tarnished by the failure he knows he’ll face — leaving Sandy Delfinage to cast aside her responsibility for the Mullins’ horses and take on sleuthing herself…until she, too, runs up against a problem she can’t solve. “Do you know,” she reflects at one point, “sometimes I think we take murder too seriously”.
And, good heavens, we can’t have that, and so the denizens of the estate rally around to squeeze all the fun that can be had out of things. Be it landowner Lord Overture (the names of some of the minor players are wonderful) beseeching Sadler that “Mullins was practically asking to be murdered. And if he was murdered after asking for it that’s suicide, isn’t it?” so the police will leave and not allow the reputation of murder to jeopardise his income, or the elderly Mrs. Murples training a succession of prize-winning boxers (the fighters — “a well-meaning if not particularly bright specimen of potted muscularity” — not the dogs), or expert on the occult Dr. Marabout who is compelled by his own vocation to believe in vampires (identifiable because their eyebrows meet in the middle) and werewolves (the root of one of the best jokes in the book)…there are plenty of off-the-wall types here for Sprigg to move into increasingly humorous tableaux.
Our protagonists — equally split, I suppose, between Laurence and Sandy — bring a refreshingly sardonic eye to their summation of many of those we encounter, too, which adds a waspish string to Sprigg’s narrative bow:
Sandy always felt she ought to admire Mrs. Eyton, and just as obstinately was unable to. Model wife, devoted parent, never ruffled, always even-tempered, only gossiping as much as politeness demanded, though she was all of these Sandy finally decided that she was too damned patronizing. These women with model husbands generally are, she reflected.
And one can’t help but feel the influence of the movies, too, with plenty of sarcasm-laced bombs hurled across the gender divide, and the occasional volley of rapid-fire dialogue (c.f. “A biologist has no business with a reputation”) aimed at whoever is foolish enough to attempt to move things away from the plot.
Because, and I cannot stress this enough, the sheer amount of plot in here is something to behold. We manage to do a whistle-stop tour of almost every idiom of detection going — alibi-hunting, chases across Europe, Humdrummery (including that oil is needed to really make a fire stick), the small matter of a semi-impossible shooting, discussion about false beards, official and amateur investigations, side mysteries that have no bearing on the central plot (Laurence’s adventure that sees him shot at and then rendered unconscious following a chase through the woods is entirely pointless and unutterably delightful). Sprigg does it all, and mostly very well indeed, with really the only false notes in the entire book coming because he has to overlook two hugely important actions — the tops of pages 219 and 270, I’m looking at you — to allow most of his fun. And I can sort of understand it, I’d rather have the fun, but at the same time such basic oversights coming so late in the game do nullify a huge amount of the wind in the sails to that point.
And — whew! — this is even before we move onto the slew of points of historical interest: a mention of “Lord Trenchard’s dreadful heresies”, subtle indications as to the science of firearms identification and the impact of the Depression, a bad cheque being referred to as “a stumer”, the fact that stops in a telegram seem to be indicated in the following way:
PLEASE MAKE ENQUIRIES AND LET ME KNOW WITH GREATEST POSSIBLE SPEED aaa THIS MOST URGENT
…I could go on, but already have. In short, I loved this — it’s fast, spry, fun, clever, rigorous, and remains surprising even when you know the exact set of rules it’s playing by. The oversight mentioned above is a real shame, and holds this back from classic status, but on almost every other front this is a triumph. And the Moonstone Press edition is lovely, too — though I find it odd that an English publisher reprinting an English author uses what to my mind is the American –ize suffix (realize, summarize, commercialize, etc) — with a good compact introduction, lovely typesetting, excellent proof-reading, and a very pleasing solidity to the overall book. One of the best reading experiences of my year so far, comes highly recommended on all fronts.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Sprigg turns the whole notion of a perfect alibi on its head and does so with a sense of ironic humor when the solution is revealed. The book utilizes other crime fiction motifs as well like masquerade, cover-ups, frame-ups, manipulation of evidence, and multiple false and true confessions all of it done with originality and unusual spins on what are often tired conventions employed with little verve or imagination in the hands of other writers.
Moira @ Clothes in Books: This book by normal standards is definitely humdrum – little-remembered author, a lot of careful detail and painstaking procedure… There is an outrageous will very much like the one in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. And many many very funny scenes with distinctive characters, some very interesting comments on male-female relations, as well as an extraordinarily clever plot.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Perfect Alibi has a plot deeply entrenched in the tradition of breaking down alibis and identities closely associated with Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts. Technically, the plot is as sound as a whistle and, as Venables states in the final chapter, every “fact and clue we needed was given us” like “the fairest possible detective story in the world” – complemented by a cleverly done, inverted alibi-trick. There is, however, a problem with this cleverly constructed solution. Nobody ever asks that one obvious question or considers it as a possible scenario. There are features of the case that warranted that question to be asked, but Sprigg conveniently ignored this weak spot until the end.
The novels of Christopher St. John Sprigg
Crime in Kensington, a.k.a. Pass the Body (1933)
Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) The Perfect Alibi (1934) Death of an Airman (1934)
The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935)
Death of a Queen (1935)
The Six Queer Things (1937)