“I am going to kill a man” — it must surely be the most famous opening line in the whole firmament of Golden Age detective fiction, and but for Sherlock Holmes and “the” woman I’d suggest the famousest opening line in all detection ever. When Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy! and I realised we were reading this near-contemporaneously, he kindly agreed to delay his review by a week that we might publish our thoughts as simultaneously as possible — I’ve not read his review as I write this, but I will by the time you’re reading it, and I am fascinated to find out how successfully he feels the game is played after that wonderful opening serve.
Here we go again, with the usual warnings: this post discusses in spoiler-heavy detail elements of the plot of Mr. Priestley’s Problem, a.k.a. The Amateur Crime (1927) by Anthony Berkeley, also published under the name of A.B. Cox.
Last week I talked — at great length — about the alibi in crime and detective fiction as utilised by the criminal working alone. This week, I’ll hopefully find as much (or, depending on your feelings about last week’s post, maybe less) to say where more than one criminal is involved, and then if there’s time I’ll diverge into crimes where there is no alibi.
Detective fiction’s Golden Age produced many very witty books — Case for Three Detectives (1936), etc — but Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls is to my mind the first time that the process of killing someone is genuinely funny. As a deployment of the detached third-person narrator it might represent the pinnacle of the genre. In many ways, this stands apart from the remainder of GAD in the way The Ladykillers (1955) stands apart from other Ealing comedies: it is savage and unsparing, and not afraid to show you the darkness beneath…but done with such a surety of touch that you don’t know whether a sentence is a joke or a profound truth until you finish it.
I have no specific rule for the order in which I read the books on my TBR, but only in special cases does something immediately jump to the head of the list. The chance to lock horns with French grand pooh-bahs Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac is one such special case: sure, their reputation in the English-speaking world might come from writing the novel that became Alfred Hitckcock’s Vertigo, but for the classic detection and locked room fan there’s plenty of excitement attached to these names through a reputation attained by other ends, too. Separately and together, their titles precede them, and so this is an opportunity to savour.