On the evening of 21st December, a group of carollers — or “waits”, a turn of phrase that was new to me — organised by the formidable Mrs. de Frayne are stopping and singing at prime spots in the small town of Paulsfield while collectors go door-to-door to raise money for the local hospital. Already struggling to keep to their strict timetable, things are frustrated further when Mr. Vavasour, one of the collectors, does not return from his allocated stretch of road, and so the party moves on without him, assuming that he has gone home. And later that evening, Mrs. Vavasour phones the De Fraynes to enquire after her husband, worried because he has not yet come home from the carolling…
It is this inexplicable vanishing of Thomas Vavasour that drives the first half of Catt Out of the Bag (1939) by Clifford Witting, and, while it’s an intriguing proposition, the mystery seems to be striving a little too hard at times to make itself appropriately mysterious (there is, after all, no reason that he couldn’t have simply hitch-hiked his way out of town for reasons to be discovered). Thankfully, Witting’s prose is very easy to read, and this initial investigation, undertaken by our narrator John Rutherford and weekend guest of the De Frayne’s Raymond Cloud-Gledhill, is enjoyable even if not the most fertile of mysterious ground. Indeed, some of the best bits of this opening half concern not the mystery but Witting’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of everything from the experience of riding in Cloud-Gledhill’s sports car ‘Auntie’…
It appears to be a convention with the makers of sports cars that the driver and his passenger must be as near the surface of the road as possible, with a clear view of nothing but the sky. In Auntie, I felt as if I was travelling on my back in a narrow, but well-sprung, double bed.
…to the almost juvenile delights of a secret game of darts with the hen-pecked Charles de Frayne. Indeed, the book is strongest in its little character moments, such as De Frayne bringing his wife a sought-after item “like a spaniel, torn between pride and apprehension, carrying a dead rat into its mistress’s boudoir”, or a nosy domestic help calling on a neighbour “in the hopeful expectation that something dreadful had happened”. While Witting’s plotting occasionally stumbles under the admirable constriction of writing a realistic police procedural novel of detection, he has a gifted touch with a clever description to retain your sympathies and keep the pages turning:
[Littleworth’s] only claim to fame rested on a golf course with enough gorse to the acre to be a danger to players with short tempers and high blood-pressure, and the most devilish water hazard in the British Isles.
Even the greatest detection writer needs more than a mere disappearance to fill out a full novel, as John Dickson Carr discovered when he wrote The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a.k.a. Lord of the Sorcerers (1945), and it spoils nothing to reveal that the skein becomes more tangled in the second half here, with the upshot that Detective Inspector Harry Charlton is brought in to proceedings. This sees both Cloud-Gledhill and, bizarrely, given that he’s the narrator, Rutherford pushed into the background somewhat, as the magnificent enterprise that is a national police force finds itself wrangling with the problem of Mr. Vavasour, with reports of all manner and natures suddenly drawn from several corners.
In recent years, the novels of Freeman Wills Crofts have given me much pleasure in this style of plotting, and Witting, without quite achieving here the clarity of Crofts at his best, writes a second half that falls very much into the Croftsian school. This is that same breed of not strictly fair play detection in the sense that you’re mostly waiting for developments to come in and be followed up — and, worry not, the one instance of our sleuth stooping to retrieve an undeclared object at a possible crime scene is cleared up soon thereafter — and these developments come in from realistic sources at a pace that feels just about right. And as you reach the point of the same refrain being discovered in four or five locations (I’m trying to avoid spoilers…) Witting wisely caps it there and spends the rest of the time trying to fit those locations and people together in a way that makes sense of the crimes which we know to have been committed.
Far be it from me to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of this very enjoyable book, but I do wonder — this being only the second Witting I’ve read — how often he drew from the well which he does both here and in A Bullet for Rhino (1950). In the same way that certain authors made a speciality of the twice-murdered corpse, say, I wonder if it’s pure chance which sees Witting fall into the same nature of revelation here as there, and I suppose the only way to resolve this, since I don’t wish to be spoiled on any of his other books, is to read more by him and wait to find out. Certainly he’s engaging enough a writer to warrant further investigation, his books full of neat little touches like the sense of new houses being built (“with a maximum of chromium-plated bathroom fittings and a minimum of foundations”) at an unpopular rate in small towns, and it’s here that I finally learn that “ack emma” is an expression once in popular usage rather than simply the name of a newspaper in The Franchise Affair (1948).
As the author’s only second novel, Catt Out of the Bag is an invigorating, entertaining, and startlingly-easy read which manages to cram in a couple of good surprises, reinterpreting some key pieces of evidence with thrilling aplomb, while feeling faithful to the roots of the procedural-puzzle hybrid tradition. I’d strip a few minor points out to the novel’s benefit — it doesn’t need Albert Miles, whose ‘evidence’ is specious at best and makes no sense at worst — but overall it’s a very enjoyable book, and marks Witting out as another possibly-unjustly forgotten star of this genre and era we love so much. Expect more from him on The Invisible Event in the future.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: The detection is a good combination of the amateur sleuthing of the arty school (narrated by John Rutherford) and the in-depth detection of the Croftsians (including some Thorndyke work with footprints). The solution is sharper than Midsummer Murder. Although the misdirection isn’t as good, the murderer is well concealed and inevitable, and his identity very well clued…and the plot is complex but clear.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Witting almost went out of his way with Catt Out of the Bag not to stand out too much, but if you like the fairly clued, solidly plotted and unassumingly competent detective novels of Crofts and John Rhode, it’s very much worth your attention. And the lighthearted, witty tone of the story makes it everything but a humdrum novel.
4 thoughts on “#1037: Catt Out of the Bag (1939) by Clifford Witting”
Glad you liked it! I can tell you the difference between Murder in Blue and Catt Out of the Bag is day and night. The improvement between Witting’s first and second novel truly is prodigious. And very much look forward to the upcoming reprint of Subject—Murder.
I cracked a smile when Vavasour’s real name was revealed. That was a fun little extra.
Interesting. I read Murder in Blue last year and wasn’t sure how much I liked it, but was interested enough that I have Catt Out of the Bag on my to read list.
Is this really the second novel? I have seen Midsummer Murders listed as earlier.
I enjoyed the book, but it felt overlong, and I don’t see why he introduced and then dropped one of the early investigators.
Yes, the sidelining of Raymond is odd narratively; he may come back into things briefly, but it would have been much more fun watching two amateurs trying to make sense of the mess.