This month of Tuesday posts picking through the more neglected corners of my TBR has now become the GAD equivalent of a bride’s wedding outfit: something dull, something shitty, something loopy, and finally something witty.
A recent poor experience with Ethel Lina White’s village mystery Fear Stalks the Village (1932) recalled to me Max Murray’s excellent village tale The Voice of the Corpse (1948) and duly reminded me that I had Murray’s second novel The King and the Corpse (1949) gathering dust somewhere. I don’t think this follow-up is quite as successful as Murray’s debut — t’was ever thus, eh? — but it’s fun, light, and inoffensive enough if you’re looking for an unchallenging read in difficult days.
The eponymous king is the deposed, youthful Rudolph the Third of Althenia who “during recent years had been an exceedingly mobile monarch” living in exile upon his palatial yacht Helena Maria. There he cooks up schemes to earn enough money to keep him in the manner to which he had been accustomed: currently it’s accepting gifts of cars from the rulers of one country and selling them to rules of another, often with a little engine tinkering between to keep him occupied. The corpse is that of Leonardo Manetti, thorn in the side of so many people that you wonder he ever achieved his majority, lying stabbed in the chest in the first line on the beach at Beaumont-sur-Mer in the Cote d’Azur…a beach off which the Helena Maria is currently anchored.
Enter Anthony Tolworth, who is Rudolph’s emissary, jack-of-all-trades, and partner in much badinage. It is Tolworth who discovers the corpse, and Tolworth whom we follow for most of the book as he engages in banter with virtually everyone he meets, charms women in general and the young Eve Raymond in particular, and finds himself caught up in a series of escapades that always come back to Leonardo Manetti, Eve Raymond’s author father, and a few other key characters — not least Tolworth’s own redoubtable Aunt Ethel.
And…that’s it, really. Tolworth seems created to be played by Cary Grant in the inevitable film, and the dialogue and descriptions always veer just on the edge of inconsequential while carrying some good thrusts in their jibes:
It was only when they were about the part that [Anthony] asked about the body.
“Oh, yes, it has been removed. I have forgotten it.”
“Have you now? What did he die of?”
“Heart failure, certainly.”
Anthony smiled. “Brought on, no doubt, by violently lying in the sun.”
As with Murray’s debut, the characters are delightful — here, as there, a couple of young boys play a key role, and he has the fearless disinterest of childhood down perfectly — but the atmosphere of the village from Voice is lost on account of this being a holiday destination, and so there’s less a sense of involvement; it really does feel like a series of scenes where someone comes in, says a few witty lines, and then departs. The Cowerdian drawing room has never been closer to hand in a murder plot, and it gets a little airless after a while. I crave some incident, some tightly-packed intrigue, at present, and this is very much the sort of book you can read while half-watching a movie at the same time.
What it does, however, it does very well indeed. That Anthony and the king address each other as almost equals when in private gives their scenes a delightful sense of fraternal sparring; it would get tedious if Tolworth were a lackey and made to know it, and the scene where he confronts the king of the murder (“I’m much too modest to claim the credit for such a good deed.”) is all the better for it. Equally, their nakedly pecuniary intentions, are a hoot, such as Tolworth agreeing that Rudolph will attend the local casino to help boost its flagging business:
“We are going to drop in at the Casino.”
“We are going to be bored.”
“On the contrary, we are going to drop in, and find ourselves enjoying ourselves so much that we are going to spend the evening there.”
“Dollars or pounds?”
“In that case I suppose we’ll have to try not to be bored.”
Plus, if you can’t get behind a novel that introduces its characters like this, then I feel sorry for you:
The Lord Chamberlain, Count Otto Shavia, was a mincing little man with lovely white hair, white spats, white facings to his waistcoat and a white silk riband to his monocle. He flattered himself that he was a courtier of the old school, very subtle and cunning. So cunning and subtle had he become that in any conversation beyond everyday commonplaces no one had very much idea what he was talking about. The Count did not walk about, he darted, which may have been what kept him so thin. He never forgot a name, and never neglected a lady of rank. He never paid for a meal and he was never without an invitation to dinner.
As criminous plots go, the victim here is far less interesting and memorable than in Voice, and virtually nothing that unfolds will surprise anyone who has read the more complex fare that the Golden Age had to offer. The changing fashion for less exacting plots, and far more conjecture than evidence in reaching conclusions, is on full display amidst the playful shenanigans on display, and Murray is clearly very talented where exposing the foibles of the individual is concerned, but you could read this as much for its casino, beaches, and golden era Holywood charm as its murder.