“I have a profound admiration for Rhino…he’s indeed a credit to Mereworth — an example to us all. The school has turned out some fine men in its time, but none finer and with a more distinguished record than Rhino Garstang. No wonder the boys look up to him!”
Thus speaks ‘Warty’ Preston Hodges, president of the Old Mereworthians’ Association, whose delight at securing the presence of Colonel Bernard ‘Rhino’ Garstang at the school’s Old Boys’ Day is not shared by everyone — or, indeed, anyone — else. While Rhino has made something of a name for himself as an Old Boy and on account of exemplary service in both world wars, to the extent that current students “follow him about with the autograph books and pencils at the alert”, the various positions he has occupied overseas have seen clouds gather around his reputation. And, even were his reputation pristine, the man himself suits his nickname: thick-necked, brusque, uncouth, and generally inconsiderate of the feelings of others.
As the title suggests, A Bullet for Rhino (1950) by Clifford Witting sees someone gunning for Colonel Garstang, and Witting has a lot of fun in the first half setting up the relationships of his cast and the spanner in various works that Rhino represents. Gordon Hollander, in love with Rhino’s comely daughter Diana, is distraught at the prospect of her father taking her to keep house for him in Nigeria just as Gordon’s father Sir James, a contemporary of Rhino’s at Mereworth, doesn’t exactly welcome Rhino’s attachment to his own family…never mind that Gordon’s near-fatal brush with malaria several years previously leaves him somewhat vulnerable to foreign climes. Diana’s mother, and Rhino’s ex-wife, Muriel is equally appalled at the prospect of her daughter being taken abroad, but recognises that it is Diana’s place to choose even if the choice might prove hard to live with. Then there’s Mark Longdon, about whom Rhino seems to know a few things that Longdon would rather stay hidden, and we haven’t even gotten to the mysterious foreign agents who seem to be dogging Rhino’s every step and handing out pistols to those who wish him harm, or others who spent their schooldays at Rhino’s mercy and might bear a grudge or five.
While Agatha Christie avowed in The Pale Horse (1960) that “it’s not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all to have a motive for killing B”, Witting makes these motives and emotions feel realistic and natural, aided in no small way by the terrified awe with which everyone seems to view the undeniably magnetic Rhino. It helps that Witting’s structure veers a long way from the clipped, clockwork accuracy of a machine-tooled Ellery Queen or Rupert Penny-esque plot to instead take a more casual, almost patchwork, approach, imbricating events by skipping back and forth in time so that the reader is kept surprisingly up-to-date with who knows — and who was responsible for — what. With the immediate past regularly stirred into the mix, the events of years distant feel somehow more pressing, the slights and injuries raw and ready to motivate some form of revenge three decades later.
In fact, this might be the most brilliant aspect of A Bullet for Rhino, since it does not seek to generate intrigue where none is needed. Our ostensible main character, Detective-Inspector Harry Charlton, receives both an invitation to the Old Boys’ day and anonymous theatre tickets for the same date clearly intended to prevent him from attending…and the sender of the latter is established only a few chapters in (their motive adding nicely to the central mystery); mysterious phone calls are rendered decidedly un-mysterious by a simple skip back in time revealing the perpetrator with a complete lack of fanfare. Where twenty yeas earlier these events would have lain dormant until our sleuth chose to weave them into a pattern at some point in the last two chapters, Witting’s stroke of brilliance is to remove so much of the mystery that it’s almost even more of a mystery what is going to be left mysterious.
With this casual disregard for the meat-and-two-veg of detective plotting comes a joyously light hand in the prose, too, walking a perfect line between levity and smugness. Yes, a fair amount of this comes from Rhino’s own views on the world — viewing scruples as “units of weight used by apothecaries” and describing his ex-wife as “an unhealthy mixture of wish-wash, phenobarbitone and — what’s that damn feller’s name?…Freud” — but extending to minor characters in a way that reminds one of Edmund Crispin, with a special mention for Old Joe, barman and factotum of the Dolphin Hotel, whose insight on the sudden appearance of an especially worrying package is that “somebody put it there when nobody else wasn’t looking”. These pithy asides work superbly — “When married to a man with a heart of gold, a woman must have nerves of steel.” — helping us keep straight a moderately-sized cast who wish their own degrees of violence upon Rhino, and who all descend upon Mereworth for a day that will live long in infamy.
Such an approach has its drawbacks, however. Not one but two chapters are devoted — entertainingly, but with absolutely no value to the plot — to a game of cricket between the school’s first XI and the visiting Old Boys, and as the second half of the novel wears on it’s fair to begin to wonder if anyone is going to take a pop at our Rhino’s hide. And when murder does intervene, Witting slows things down even more for several recapitulatory chapters that simply sift information we already have to almost tedious lengths, all so that it can build to a shocking revelation that is surely only going to surprise people who are still expecting London Bridge to arrive in the mail any day now. It’s the sort of experiment that you could see Anthony Berkeley trying in one of his minor works, but Berkeley would structure it the other way around: the crime would happen early and be followed by lots of tedious routine. Witting’s way is more entertaining at first…but my patience was being tested towards the end.
The final couple of chapters save it, with some clever reasoning by Charlton passed through a second character since the local policemen have made it clear they don’t value his insights, and the scheme within the scheme revealed. Alas, some closing revelations — especially the blase attitude with which one action is treated — left something of a sour taste, so that I don’t know quite what to make of this one. There’s so much charm in Witting’s prose and structuring that I’m amazed he’s not more widely discussed (that he has until only recently been fully out of print doesn’t help, I’m sure…), but as a plotter and, especially, as a layer of clues he falls short here in ways that jettison those sorts of questions. I intend to read further, of course, especially after the confidence of that opening half, but I hope these third act problems don’t become a recurring feature.
Thankfully, his cast is a delight — perhaps they’re a little plain, but they talk like real people, are stuck in the same awkward social expectations, and each have a personality of their own which compels them easily to the memory. Their relationships feel real, and the outbursts that occur, the breaking and making of acquaintances in such a contracted period, are surprisingly organic. And even Rhino, by some distance the most colourful of the lot, carrying the whole edifice on his slab-like shoulders, isn’t a complete rogue, possessed of both a schoolboy bashfulness when going to talk to Muriel about Diana coming with him on his return to Nigeria, and showing a surprisingly empathetic streak in his reasons for some of his actions. The moment that he pulls a gun on someone in a bar and then seems baffled by the barman’s evident terror (“What’s the matter with you? Something scared you?”) is also one of the neatest exemplifications of a character I’ve yet to encounter.
And so A Bullet for Rhino represents as mixed a bag as I’ve encountered of late: packed with many Golden Age tropes, and managing to feel fresh and invigorating when undercutting them. Alas, in the actual, unavoidable conventions of the genre it falls down, as Witting’s detection is ponderous and his big surprises either not surprising at all or so suddenly whipped out of a hat without any inevitability about them that the seasoned reader will find themselves asking “But couldn’t it have also been…?”. For a book that has lain long-dormant on my TBR, however, A Bullet for Rhino has fulfilled its role in getting me interested in reading more by its authors, however, so you and I can expect more Witting in my future.