Just a few days ago it was my lot to be unimpressed by the concluding volume of one series, and so time is ripe for me to be slightly underwhelmed by the fourth and final novel to feature Herbert Brean’s photographer-sleuth Reynold Frame. This feels like the thousandth book I’ve read this year to which my response has been “Yeah, it was okaaaay…”, but it’s sort of pleasing to finally encounter something by Brean that fails on its own terms — though if you can’t help but go into this “ten people trapped on an island, then murder intrudes” story expecting an update of And Then There Were None (1939), you do so at your own damn peril.
The relative slimness of the plot can be guessed from the opening four pages in which Frame is phoned in the night and told he’s going on an assignment in the morning as a last-minute replacement for someone else. We then cut to him on the way to that assgnment, and have a second scene in which his choice as a replacement is explained to another character…rendering those opening four pages pointless. This is a recurring motif of sorts, which is not to say that the book is overloaded with trivialities and tautologies, but more that Brean will give more attention to things like lingering supplies and general hunger than to a complex, multi-faceted mystery in the vein of preceding title (and unacknowledged masterpiece) Hardly a Man is Now Alive, a.k.a. Murder Now and Then (1950).
What plot we have concerns one-time genius brain surgeon North Wayland who, following the death of his family, also became a genius bacteriologist. For the last decade or so, Wayland and six colleagues have been set up on deserted Kilgore Island, “twenty-four miles out in the Atlantic”, working on…well, no-one knows what. Since communication with the mainland has been reduced to little more than one man bringing over weekly supplies, Wayland’s innovations have become the stuff of quiet legend. And now he is willing to disclose all to magazine writer Leon “Ex” Exeter, and Frame is to take the pictures that will help disseminate the anticipated genius of his discovery.
Frame is less than delighted when Kilgore Island turns out to be a desolate wasteland — “possessed of a dark, malignant purpose of its own, as though it would spread its lifeless dry rot over the face of the earth” — and when Wayland is killed before he is able to drop his bombshell for Frame’s elucidation, some of the truth comes out: the gang have been working on different means of biological warfare (“That is, science doing its darndest to kill off man in wholesale lots.”) and the lifeless island is a testament to their success. To add to the tensions among the group, no-one knows what Wayland had been working on, and since the cultures were exposed when he was killed, everyone might now be infected with a completely new lethal pathogen…
There is then a lot of talking in circles about how everyone was accounted for at the time of the murder and yet how this also means everyone was able to commit the murder without suspicion falling upon them — Frame’s ingenious examination of the “perfect alibi” is easily the most accomplished part of the book — and then everyone realising that their food has also been infected and so occasional searches of the island are interspersed with longeurs of them feeling exhausted as delirious as hunger sets in. It’s not without interest, and Brean has a beautifully clear way of writing that drops in the few genuine chills he seeks to evoke with superb aplomb (the end of chapter 14 a particular highlight) but only the lobster bisque enthusiasts among you will leave fully satisfied.
The characters, however, are there to make up for it, with third-wheel romances and the subtle ways people wear on each other when forced together for extended periods explored with an impresseive brevity. Late on, Frame has good reason to curse the “smiling eagerness” of one of the scientisits who is simply “happy to be the centre of attention for a moment” in sharing information he wants kept secret, and it undoubtedly comes from the way that character has behaved throughout. Nearly everyone gets several faces — the taciturn, bumptious Major Geddes turning eager and loquacious around the attractive Clare Quarles, herself a confidante of sorts for Frame; the appropriately-named Harry Inglehart driving the response to Wayland’s murder that allows Frame to conduct his own background investigations, yet proving to be more of a romantic than previously suspected — with only housekeeper Mrs. Danielson and her childlike 30 year-old son Tom hitting a single note over and over again. Hell, the eponymous clock that chimes thirteen times at midnight — for no purpose except it’s a cool title, I guess — has more character than Mrs. Danielson.
What little investigating can be done is well-spun from both positive and negative evidence, with Frame confronting the very real chance of his being arrested and so needing to clear his name before the authorities are involved. Easily the most enjoyable part of this strand is the frankly delirious section that occurs about halfway through and really needs to be encountered with no more said about it. I feel like I got less of a sense of him as a character here than in his three previous cases, but there’s a sardonic self-awareness about his actions (“He had the modern man’s distate for theatrics, and as his tumb moved the hammer [of the gun] back into firing position, he told himself that he must be careful not to shoot himself in the toe.”) that never veers into parody. He’s no oaf, but he’s a little indistinct here, perhaps to make room for the others.
So, well, I didn’t hate this, but I’d wanted Brean to finish Frame’s cases with something of a flourish akin to his triumphant third. As with his other books, this is interesting for the odd wrinkles he finds to play with in what should be a predictable setup that almost runs on its own rails, but anyone coming to this wanting a swift and devious drenching in island-based slaughter is going to put it down bemused and probably a little angry. Don’t let my less-than-glowing take deter you if you’ve read and enjoyed Brean elsewhere, but also don’t start here if you’ve never read the man before. His later work The Traces of Brillhart (1960) shows a desire to move away from the accepted trappings of conventional mystery plotting, and I think this was probably the first real step off the path. I don’t think it quite succeeds as either, but I’m not going to criticise the man for trying something new.
And. hey, at least the cover of this Dell edition actually depicts a scene in the novel; so that’s a bonus.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Clock Strikes Thirteen is, plot-wise, not quite as good as Brean’s other detective novels, but the writing and its suspenseful take on the closed-circle of suspects/isolated island situation helped elevate the story to something very much worth your time. Even more so if you like these type of mysteries centering on a small, isolated cast of characters. Brean was great even when playing with a weak hand.
The Reynold Frame series by Herbert Brean:
Wilders Walk Away (1948)
The Darker the Night (1949)
Hardly a Man is Now Alive, a.k.a. Murder Now and Then (1950)
The Clock Strikes 13 (1952)