You wait months for a Ticking Clock Against Which to Discover the Real Killer Before an Innocent Person is Wrongfully Executed thriller, and then two come along in the same week.
Noose for a Lady (1952) by Gerald Verner is the first entry in his short series featuring portrait-painter-cum-amateur-sleuth Simon Gale, and my previous encounter with the character — third and final entry The Snark Was a Boojum (2015), completed by the author’s son Chris — was entertaining enough to warrant another visit. So we’re back at the start, with Margaret Hallman jailed for the murder of her husband, and Gale discovering this less than a week before his childhood friend is due to meet the hangman. Margaret’s step-daughter Jill refuses to believe the verdict, and so engages Gale to find the real killer despite the case looking — of course — bleak:
“Your father died from an overdose of barbitone, administered in a glass of hot — er — whisky and milk. The mixture was prepared by Mrs. Hallam herself and taken by her to your father in his study the last thing before she retired for the night. Nobody could have had access to this whisky and milk except your father and Mrs. Hallam…”
Verner wrote prodigiously, which means that we don’t expect much in the way of subtle scene-setting or elegiac prose, but it’s fairly astonishing how much he gets away with despite telling you next to nothing about the surroundings and settings. The Hand and Flower pub, for instance, is described once, with staggering brevity — “There was nothing elaborate about it. It possessed only one bar, but that was comfortable, with a comfort that more pretentious places of the kind might have envied” — but your mind will fill in the gaps simply because it’s such a familiar setting…so why should Verner waste time and effort when you’re perfectly capable of doing the work yourself? Those twelve books a year aren’t going to write themselves, you know.
This functionality extends to the characters, with Gale himself being little more than a few hyphenated phrases — pipe-smoking, tweed-clad, heftily-bearded — attached to a loud, unapologetically boisterous nature. When learning of Margaret’s fate from Jill in a coffee shop, his loud, shocked reaction is met with a plea from Jill that he keep his voice down because “everybody’s looking round” — to which he replies, with a disdain you can categorise as characteristic despite not having met the man before, “I don’t care a hundred tinkers’ cusses if they’re looking triangular!”…it’s not subtle, but it is undeniably effective. And it allows Gale to be the swaggering, devil-may-care centre around which a variety of Types are able to orbit without it ever upsetting the balance of the plot. There’s only so much room for a Personality in most books, and Gale definitely takes it all up here.
Still, those orbiting bodies remain clear and distinct, lacking perhaps the subtlety of Agatha Christie’s thumbnail sketches but still easy to fix in the mind, with the acidulated spinster Miss Ginch — a John Dickson Carr reference, do we think? — an especially unpleasant spider at the centre of the village’s web of gossip and hearsay.
She looked at him with tight lips. “I am not in the habit of lying, Mr. Gale.”
“Perhaps not as a habit,” he said. “Would it be wrong to suggest that this is the exception?”
As an investigator, Gale is very much in the ‘Shout at them until they tell you what you want’ school, and progresses more through promised bribes and spontaneous confession than any acuity or particular talent for detecting. If he thinks someone is lying, it turns out they were; if he gathers the suspects and invites them to disclose what secret someone may be holding over them, they do. “Ingenuity is so much rarer than truth,” he laments at one stage, and yet it is the former which is notable by its absence here, and it’s difficult not to agree with the unmasked guilty party when they accuse Gale of simply making the facts fit the story in his final flourish of a summary…were that someone not moved to confess, it would be a brave lawyer who stood up in court with the majority of what is proffered as evidence.
But, well, this functionality is difficult not to enjoy. In a weird sort of way, Noose for a Lady makes a perfect companion piece to It Walks by Night (1930) by John Dickson Carr because of how underwritten this is when compared to the elaborate Gothic horrors of Carr’s debut. You probably know where most of Verner’s plot strands are going even as he unveils them — Come and See Me Later Because I Have Important Information to Relay makes an appearance, as does How Could They Possibly Know What’s in Room X Because They’ve Never Been in There — and yet he also maps out a couple of satisfying false trails and one borderline-bravura piece of misdirection that’s so subtle you’d be forgiven for falling for it. Plus, Gale really is a lot of fun to spend time with, putting down the fey Robert Upcott when he tries to gain the painter’s sympathy by holding forth on beauty, and generally terrifying everyone at first encounter to greatly amusing effect.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book, however, is in rendering most intriguing a character who doesn’t even appear — our victim, Margaret’s husband John Hallam. A man perhaps universally despised in his village, about whom a slow drip of information gradually draws a picture of a mettlesome nature that juxtaposes with his role as a loving husband and father. It’s only a shame that the resolution of this whole enterprise goes to such careful lengths to draw out a credible reason for deeming his murder necessary from the array of suspects on display, only to settle for an eventual motive that’s — as you English say — a bit shit. Still, it’s rare that a book has its murder victim dead for the duration and leaves you with a feeling that it would have been wonderful to read just as many words about said victim before their death.
All told, then, Noose for a Lady broadly does what you’d expect. Trading in many familiar tropes to the point just before wearying familiarity sets in — I had to check the publication date several times, in case it was a more compelling work from 30 years earlier — and occasionally straying into a tonal misstep or two (there’s a death towards the end for which Gale arguably bears responsibility, and everyone just shrugs and goes ‘Oh, well, all in a day’s work, eh…?’), it nevertheless provides an undemanding night’s entertainment that washes the palate clean after more considered works from more justly praised names in the genre. I can’t urge you to rush out and buy it, let’s not be rash, but if you want an undemanding time in the company of an entertaining, beer-swilling amateur sleuth…well, you could do a damn-sight worse.