#830: So Pretty a Problem (1950) by Francis Duncan

So Pretty a Problem

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“Please.  Come quickly.  Please.  I’ve killed my husband.” — these words awaken the holidaying Mordecai Tremaine as he dozes on the beach below the clifftop holiday home of Helen Carthallow and her artist husband Adrian.  More worryingly, the words are spoken by Helen herself and, accompanying her over the footbridge that is the house’s only connection to the mainland, Tremaine finds Adrian shot in the head and Helen insisting it’s all the result of a bit of playfulness gone very, very wrong. All this happening in the opening chapter of So Pretty a Problem (1950) by Francis Duncan seemed to bode well for an incident-packed puzzle plot…and then, well.

Much fascinates me about the detective fiction of the Golden Age, and amidst all the self-directed understanding I’ve achieved over the likes of character, misdirection, and setting, structure remains a dark art. So quite why — after starting practically in media res and then quickly establishing an interesting puzzle where (a little confusingly, it must be said) we have reason to doubt Helen’s versions of events — Duncan then jumps back in time several weeks to give us a series of encounters with what will turn out to be the suspects is beyond my ken. Could this section not be first? It’d be a dull start, but at least once the murder occurred there would be some purpose to the introductions. As it is, we’ve met everyone already in the wake of the murder — briefly, yes, but let’s not pretend that subtle characterisation is a strength here — and for slightly over 100 pages we get a few scant crumbs of extra information that don’t really matter anyway.

I skipped the last 40 pages of this middle section, largely because I got tired of Mordecai Tremaine — Duncan refers to him, in the third person, by both his names solidly 90% of the time he’s named in the text — avowing he would have no more to do with the Carthallow menage, only to bump into one or other of them on the apparently empty-of-anything-else-to-do-or-see streets of London. Cue a long reflection on how it seems that Helen might be keen on Lester Imleyson…which we know from the opening couple of chapters, or someone telling or reflecting upon the sad history of the Carthallow’s holiday home, glorying in the inapt name of ‘Paradise’, which we’ve again already been told. The cynic in me says this is due to Duncan having a dearth of events with which to fill out his book, but whenever I suggest the same thing about Five Little Pigs (1942) people start shouting so I’m left to assume that I must be the one at fault.

And the bugger of it is that, while Duncan can be a little condescending at times toward the wimmin — Adrian’s having been shot at close range with a large calibre gun is summed up as “a sight to unnerve any woman”, bless ’em — there is some very good writing here: the town of Falporth being without “that peculiarly seaside adiposity that produces a bulging waistline composed of artificial promenades, amusement arcades and overcrowded beaches” or Mordecai Tremain reflecting on the role of the sleuth thus…

It was a relief not to have to hound someone; not to have to work with the knowledge that that someone knew what you were tyring to do and was waiting, with fear and hate in his heart…[to] not have the eternal thought that these things were only a means to an end and that sooner or later you would have to strip away the pretence and stand forth as the accuser, invoking the awesome paraphernalia of the law.

Equally, Mordecai Tremaine (it gets annoying, doesn’t it?) isn’t that taken with Helen at first, only softening to her over time, and reflecting that she seems by far the more sympathetic half of the Carthallow marriage — a conclusion confirmed when no-one seems to spare poor, dead Adrian any sympathy at all.

Duncan seems, too, interested in the sturm und drang of the puzzle plot only in principle rather than practice. The murder of Adrian (er, spoilers?) might be considered an impossible crime, since Helen’s claims to guilt seem so spurious and no-one else went near the house all day…until you realise that this second point is established only by the eyewitness testimony of borderline invalid and shut-in Matilda Vickery who could see the footbridge to ‘Paradise’ from her window. But she can’t have been watching it all the time — she’d have to go to the toilet at some point, surely, if nothing else. And I’m pretty sure there’s one key element of the commission of the crime which isn’t explained away and would leave a clear indication of what really happened. Maybe I skipped that bit, though, who knows?

I was so stuck for things to enjoy about this that I’ll admit to laughing for far too long at the description of Elton Steele as “the kind of man who could display a devastating wrath when he was aroused”. At least that characterisation is memorable, though, which is more than anyone else here can claim. Adrian is boorish yet magnetically attractive, Helen is repressed and dissatisfied, Inspector Penross might as well be Blakey from On the Buses waving his fist and gurning when he’s required to do any thinking, Lewis Haldean is blonde and has a beard. Normally I try to finish a book a few days before I write about it so that my impressions have time to settle and I can dismiss any immediate frustrations or short-lived euphoria; I’m writing this review having pretty much just put the book down because I will not remember any of this in three weeks. A year from now I’m going to find this in a charity shop and probably buy it again, forgetting I’ve already read it.

Much like Snow White sat around singing ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’, I feel like I’ve kissed a lot of frogs lately, and doubtless that added to my irritation at this book when its swift start turned out to be a false one. Thankfully this frustration is also completely justified by the long-winded confession offered up by our killer at the other end of things, and Mordecai Tremaine’s brass neck in claiming to have worked it all out only once said killer has laid out their scheme. Mind you, Mordecai Tremaine avidly reads a periodical entitled Romantic Stories and is moved to reflect at one point on the “original plot” of one such story therein…come, come, Mr. Duncan — an elderly ex-tobacconist being given carte blanche access to crime scenes ahead of being invited in to the investigation by the Chief Constable of the county is one thing, but you can yank a chain only so hard before it breaks.

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See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Duncan was a good writer with a pleasant, intelligent writing-style, which made the middle section not exactly a chore to read, but this portion should have preceded the discovery of the murder. After the opening chapters, you want to get on with the book as a detective story and not be thrown into a character study. So, not a mortal sin, but something you should keep in mind when you pick this one up.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: I found these two distinct sides to Tremaine jarring at times and I did wonder if Tremaine had been a female character, the writer might have happily had him retain his sentimentality throughout and bring in another, probably male, character to wrap up the case. Instead Tremaine gets to indulge in sentimentality whilst retaining respect from his male peers, particularly his police friends. Tremaine provides quite a stark contrast to Miss Marple, whose judgement is depicted as far less clouded. But then perhaps being an elderly woman, her character couldn’t afford to make too many severe slipups, if she was to be taken seriously?

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Adding to the book’s problems, the only character who made much of an impact with me was Adrian Carthallow himself. He is perhaps not the most nuanced figure, hitting many of the common artist tropes in fiction, but he is at least a vibrant figure who makes an impact. The other figures in the case by contrast feel rather underdeveloped and lacking color. For instance, while Helen’s entrance is striking I feel we learn very little about her or her personality beyond those opening pages.

9 thoughts on “#830: So Pretty a Problem (1950) by Francis Duncan

  1. I know exactly what you mean about it being the sort of book you will forget having read. I feel that way about my previous Duncan read too – it has completely gone from the memory after just a few years.
    The frustrating thing from my POV is that these books were actually pretty prominent over here. Other than Christie, Hammett and Chandler (and occasionally Sayers), they were pretty much the only titles of that vintage you could expect to see on shelves at Barnes and Noble and the other chain bookstores. Beautiful to look at but I’m not sure I’d have become the GAD fan I am if this was my first taste of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thankfully, if anyone has this as an early encounter with the genre and opts to read further, it will be easy to find better-written, more pleasing, more susprising, more successful examples of the form.

      So, y’know, every cloud…

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      • That’s true – while I still don’t see a lot of GAD reprints in book stores, the AMC and BL reprints do at least seem to make it onto public library shelves which is something!

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        • And, I suppose, online — which is where a lot of people go first to find books or reviews. Now they can find raves of the likes of Till Death Do Us Part and go and track down the new BL edition…the lucky beggars!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for taking the bullet for us. But after the book club unanimous conclusion that this is not a good book, it goes to the bottom of my TBR assuming I ever read it. I don’t need a cliff hanger or a reveal at the end of each chapter, but one of the most unforgivable weaknesses for me in GAD are books that sag in the middle or are longer than needed.

    Shame as Aidan is right … you can walk into most any Waterstones or Barnes & Noble and find Duncan’s work there. Further shame that we don’t have re-prints of Brand, Boucher, a good bit of Carr or Rhode/Burton, etc. whilst these are available instead.

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    • Still, I wonder if this might have paved the way for the Boucher, Carr, Rhode, etc. reprints we have got — these seem moderately well-reviewed on the likes of Goodreads, so could have paved some of the way for publishers to seek to expand their slate in the genre.

      It seems odd to me that someone can rate this as a five-star read (and many have!) but at least it’s sifted some copies and so could yet bear better fruit in the future…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The mediocre reviews I have been reading of this one do somewhat diminish my enthusiasm for the two other Duncan books I have picked up “In my travels” – Murder Has a Motive and Murder for Christmas . When the day comes I will probably start with either of those having read positive (albeit muted) things about them.

    I must imagine that the books’ relative obscurity has made them easy to reprint. My head begins to spin when I consider what the rights issues must be for Carr, Brand, Boucher, and others that has kept them from bookshelves so long. SOMEONE must impress upon these rights holders that there is a real appetite for these books to be brought back!

    Liked by 1 person

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