Both versions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956) contain excellent scenes in which a killer takes aim at their target in the Royal Albert Hall while the music builds ominously. Sebastian Farr’s Death on the Down Beat (1941) utilises the same idea, but transfers it to an orchestral performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben in the fictional northern city of Maningpool and picks up after the killing, asking what would happen if the murder of an unpopular conductor in such circumstances was investigated a weary detective who just wants to get home to his wife and young children and finds himself frustrated at almost every turn by the intrusion by self-important local types.
The subtitle given to this recent addition to the increasingly excellent British Library Crime Classics range — “An orchestral fantasy of detection” — is a good one, because the story is pitched somewhere between the sober, workmanlike scientific toiling of a John Rhode novel and the catty flights of bitchiness found in the most delightful extremes of Edmund Crispin’s savage skewerings. Detective Inspector Alan Hope is faced with a suspect pool containing some sixty musicians, the bullet wound making it a certainty that Sir Noel Grampian was shot by someone in front of him, and yet for all his steady sifting of the evidence as he writes letters home to his long-suffering wife Julia (“[Writing to you] clarif[ies] my fuddled mind, so bear with me once again…”) there’s the unavoidable impression that Farr’s tongue is wedged firmly in his cheek:
Beatrice says I must come [to lunch] every Sunday as long as I’m here. She at any rate has no illusions about my being able to solve this case in a hurry.
Once you adapt to the conversational, badinage-laden tone of Hope’s letters, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, both in his disdainful regard of the various characters he encounters (“I verily believe he’s himself the murderer. No man who uses so many superfluous commas can be innocent.”) and the way several ‘experts’ — not least the warring music critics of Maningpool’s rival newspapers — seek to insert themselves into the investigation. Even as one eyewitness asserts that “it must be remembered that Strauss’ music makes a good deal of noise which could easily cover up a shot” the Telegraph‘s Jasper Ransom criticises the killer’s timing since “the ceaseless beating of drums” in an adjacent section of the score would have made it a far better choice — there’s a lot of this sort of thing, and the density of the prose means close reading is required to wring the intended response out of Farr’s writing.
Indeed, about the only thing I can find to criticise the majority of the book on is that denseness, evinced not just in the prose but also in the inevitable thinness of most of the characters who are crammed in cheek-by-jowl…something which becomes almost distractingly apparent when, at the halfway stage, Hope sends his wife letters in which twenty-six of the suspects air their thoughts, grievances, innocence, and personalities. A few will stick in the memory, like the Communist W.G. Deanery (“…we must obviously wait for a more wholesale extermination of the vassals of Capitalism…”) or the splendidly pompous Thomas Dashwood (“[W]here should we be if nobody ever tried to set mistakes right? We should live in an intellectual morass even worse than that in which our Orchestra festers…”) but the majority are going to fly past without getting even a finger-hold. Hope may marvel at the morass of “such incompatibly different people”, but as a reader of detective fiction I’d like them to be more than just fleeting shades. Such is the peril with the epistolary novel, however, and Farr — nom de plume of music writer and critic Eric Walter Blom — is not the only writer to thus stumble.
This does mean, however, that things fall a little flat come the revelation of the killer’s identity, not least because — for all Farr’s attempts to play fair via diagrams, newspaper cuttings, annotated lists, and so forth — there’s the requirement for positive swathes of data that the reader did not have before knowing whodunnit. The last 20 pages contain so much information, indeed, that it’s difficult not to wonder if some of it might have been meted out amidst all that badinage earlier. Farr is clearly aware of the principles of detective fiction, but his callowness in writing for the form becomes abundantly clear when the necessity of tying up his various threads comes to the fore. It’s an unfortunately damp end to what has until that point been a frothy delight, and slightly more galling for how well-practised the form was by this time in its history.
And yet, for all this disappointment of the denouement, there’s no denying the verve of what precedes it, whether discussing motives (“[I]f N.G. was half the bounder I understand him to have been, about 50 per cent of them, if not more, could have shot him…”), delighting in the argot of its setting (“I only play there when a C.A. part of 3 Ob’s is in the programme and otherwise at the Hippo.”), or revealing the very enjoyable personality of its central policeman (“I will not sink to a quotation from Gilbert — not yet; but you find the appropriate passage in the second act of the ‘Pirates’.”). I can understand the enthusiasm Martin Edwards has shown for this over the years, and it’s certainly an interesting addition to one of the best crime imprints of recent years. Much kudos to the British Library for bringing it back, and many thanks from me for the review copy.