One stormy evening, the nebbishy, unworldly Alfred Austin of 57 Caldwell Road is phoned up and asked to take a message to his neighbour Mr. Carey at number 52, only to fight his way through the wind and the rain to be told upon arrival that no-one of that name lives there. When Austin’s wife arrives home later that same evening, she informs him that no-one of any name lives there, as the house has been empty since being built a year previously. The following morning, Alf sees a man with bloody hands leaving number 52 shortly before a dead body is discovered within…and that’s just the beginning of his problems.
And so I return to the work of Walter S. Masterman, that study in contrasts who I’m yet to figure out, have found vaguely disappointing, and yet feel compelled to investigate further. There’s something of the uptight Victorian about his writing, except that he’s more than happy for his fiction to indulge in modern mores like extra-marital affairs and divorce; he’s no prose stylist, and then suddenly he’ll unfurl a wonderful paragraph that hits you right there, such as…
They watched him go up the long straight road, his strong figure appearing under the lights and lost again in the darkness between. The echo of his footfall on the pavement grew faint. He never paused nor looked back. Pat shivered — it was like the sound of Death in his dreadful passage marking the houses doomed for his icy touch.
There is nothing perhaps that pulls more intensely at the heart of those who are seeing relatives or friends off to a foreign land than this slowly widening margin between the vessel and the quayside. It is almost like the lowering of a coffin into the grave, and in the days of the War was perhaps the most heartrending moment of all.
And then, just as you think his prose is about to get too sententious and overbearing, he throws in legitimate jokes (“[They assisted] the workmen in the process of moving in No. 52, greatly to their disgust, as they were not used to being hustled, being Trade Unionists.”) or metaphors so delightfully absurd that you can’t help but laugh (a chauffeur being forced out into the rain to help fix a car, and approaching the stricken vehicle with “the contempt that a Rolls has for a two-seater, a racial hatred”). Masterman doesn’t even have the decency to plot properly, with the focus here ranging all over the place, from the murder to marital problems to an almost action finale aboard a transatlantic liner, via a sideways look at the economic difficulty associated with finding a job in the early 1930s and a remarkably sobering summary of how someone may be induced into crime (“…twelve of his fellow men declare that he was insane at the time. He was too painfully sane.”).
The structure, too, is all over the place. Austin, the ostensible protagonist of the first third, eventually backgrounded so that journalist Patrick ‘Pat’ McConnell can be followed around in solving the mystery of this phone call and mysterious murder…and yet Pat doesn’t solve it, never possesses the information to solve it, and ends up a passive presence in the thrall of Superintendent Arthur Sinclair who provides the pieces come the end. And don’t even get me started on Sinclair, who may have now appeared in six books I’ve read by Masterman and yet remains as vague a presence as any cipher…yet casts an oddly reassuring air onto proceedings despite possibly being completely different here to elsewhere. I can’t tell you if he is, since there’s not really much to pin down the man’s morals or thinking…but I like when he’s on the page, even if I’ll have forgotten him in another week.
And yet, for all his flaws, Masterman is fascinating. Amidst his complete disregard for the conventions of plot, structure, morality, character, and detection tropes, he exhibits here a tight control on the patterns that tumble out of his plot unlike almost anyone else you’d care to mention in the Golden Age. Anthony Berkeley knew more about challenging accepted norms, Agatha Christie about sowing the seeds of clues and declaration, John Dickson Carr about juggling atmosphere to devastating effect…yet none of them could have made this plot work and come out as tightly as it does. There’s something of the French School in Masterman’s loosey-goosey tumbling of events on the way to a fairly surprising final chapter that brings to mind the most ornate translations from Locked Room International: Death Out of Nowhere (1945, tr. 2019) by Gensoul and Grenier springs to mind, as does the work of Noel Vindry. I don’t know if Masterman was ever translated into French, but I’m willing to bet that the Gallic detective school would have bloody loved him.
Not everything works — the very important secret room revealed in chapter XI, ‘The Secret Room’, doesn’t make architectural sense to me, and you know McConnell is Irish because he says things like “She’s the most untoidy and dirty woman I’ve ever set me eyes on, so we’ll get along foine.” — but rarely does a morality play about the perils of sudden wealth find itself wrapped up in so sprawling and ill-focussed a novel of crime that staggers all over the place only to execute a perfect somersault come the end and reveal how thoroughly well-realised the whole thing is. Yes, the dead body in a room locked and bolted on the inside fails to turn into anything, but then you also get a one paragraph ex-waiter who has started his own restaurant and can’t wait to “return to Italy and buy a villa, and live in comfort out of what he had made off the stupid English,” so your swings and roundabouts really do jostle for position.
This probably shouldn’t be your first Masterman title — I’d recommend starting with The Wrong Letter (1926) and then The Curse of the Reckaviles (1927) — but if you like those, dive into this and enjoy. I have not a single note about the final third because of how avidly I was tearing through the pages, so caught up in events had I become. Plus, a couple of interesting historical principles assert themselves, such as the moment early on when Alf laments that the message has evidently come from “someone who did not know the road, for the odd numbers ran down one side of the street and the even up the other”…does this mean that the even numbers run north to south and the odd south to north? And, even if not, since when was it uncommon for the numbers to be divided this way? The evens one side and the odds the other — albeit increasing in the same direction — is how it’s done in the UK now as standard. Add to this the term “puggy” to apparently imply a less than favourable impression of someone and there’s plenty of curiosity to be found in this author and his work yet. Onwards with the discovery!