Attending a village fete in support of family connections, Jack Haldean is vexed to be confronted by the boorish Jeremy Boscombe — an acquaintance from his war days he’d rather avoid. Several whiskeys later, Boscombe is deposited in the fortune-teller’s tent and, when Mrs Griffin returns victorious from the cake competition to resume her palm readings, it’s discovered that Boscombe’s presumed drunken slumber is in fact a rather more permanent state of affairs: someone has crept up to the tent and shot him dead. And Jack Haldean, who had made his displeasure at Boscombe’s presence known, had been standing right outside the tent when it happened…
There’s never any question of Haldean being involved in Boscombe’s death — for one thing, he’s gone on to star in his own series of novels, the most recent of which, The Chapel in the Woods (2021), came out at the end of last year. And that reminded me that while I’ve read four of Dolores Gordon-Smith’s novels I started, weirdly, at Book 3, and had been moving forwards through the series from there. So a volte-face to A Fete Worse than Death (2007) and Jack’s origins was on the cards, and he doesn’t disappoint: from the moment Superintendent Edward Ashley appears on the scene, Jack in is pure Amateur Detective mode, seeking to inveigle his way into the investigation to help uncover what has happened.
Much as with an author Gordon-Smith and I both admire very much, Freeman Wills Crofts, one of the strengths of this series is how each novel seeks to find some new way to approach the detective story. Being the series opener, it should offer little surprise that A Fete Worse than Death is far and away the most traditional approach I’ve yet encountered, with a swiftly-evolving pot that draws in several Suspicious Types and rests on matters in their shared history…and here, too, more than elsewhere in the series, we get some meat comments on Haldean’s sideline as a detective novelist:
“Bullets and skulls are all very well in your stories, but I don’t see why we have to talk about them.”
Before long a second body appears, and Ashley actually finds himself rather pleased to have Major Haldean by his side, especially given the latter’s clandestine involvement in the “nasty business” at Torrington Place. When matters of questionable identity arise, not to mention one of those so-cut-and-dried-it-has-to-be-a-setup situations that fictional murderers persist in masterminding even though they fool no-one, the two investigators will have to reach back into the past and the ever-shadowing presence of the Great War. Someone has something to hide, and more than a few murders are pocket change in comparison.
In this regard, A Fete Worse than Death reminded me of the Dr. David Audley novels of Anthony Price, which come highly recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those based in the events surrounding the Second World War. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Labyrinth Makers (1970), Other Paths to Glory (1974), The ’44 Vintage (1978), or The Old Vengeful (1982), you’ll find much in Gordon-Smith’s debut to your liking — it spoils nothing to reveal that some form of treachery rears its head, and the best novels relying on that as a motivation manage to make it feel a very human crime. We can get a bit inured to murders in the current narrative — they’re why we read murder mysteries, after all — but historical crimes hit harder when you feel a connection or a sense of despair at learning what people have done. Here, that is most certainly the case.
I’ll be honest and say that I picked the killer early on — we’re in GAD-inspired territory, after all, so only one person seemed likely to me — but the nature of the revelations that drive the plot, made this a very entertaining read nonetheless. Perhaps the middle chapters seek to cover a little too much ground where certain events could be relayed more concisely, and perhaps the concluding chapter could have done with a couple fewer instances of things Halden and Ashley know which the reader wasn’t wise to, but, for a first stab at this kind of plot, things are mostly handled very well indeed. It seems to be a feature of Gordon-Smith’s books that things drive towards a compelling finale, and as we approached the end I found the pages flying past…always a good sign!
One thing reading this really brought home to me is the sheer diversity that’s possible within the crime and detection genre even a century after its inception. The nature of a genre novel is that it reuses certain tropes in order to fulfil its brief and the expectations of the readers picking it up, but folding in history, romance, and surprising developments, and tying them all together through the placement of a steel wire from which everything swings is a wonderful conceit of these mysteries. To See Gordon-Smith reach so confidently into the past to bring out these passions and patterns with such energy and enthusiasm really is a joy, and remains so for me even though these novels really should have had their day by now. Of course, not everyone does it this well, but we can be thankful when someone does, eh?
The Jack Haldean series by Dolores Gordon-Smith