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.
The reputation for being something of an interminable bore that still dogs Freeman Wills Crofts some 60 years after his death wants for evidence in Antidote to Venom. We’re about halfway through when the murder occurs, by which point you’ve had not only a highly sympathetic portrait of the central man in the affair, but also the convincing use of minor characters to create the situation in a way that relies on coincidence without feeling forced, an allusion to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and two — count ’em — legitimate jokes. It is spry, focussed, beautifully rich in intrigue and heartbreak, and balances its inverted and traditional elements perfectly. And when the investigation starts…oh, boy, are you in for a treat.
What’s in a name? When you’re dealing with GAD authors, quite a lot, which is why I’ve read 71 books by Agatha Christie but have yet to pick up any by Mary Westmacott, or why so much attention is paid to the four books Barnaby Ross published in his two-year career. So when I say this Anthony Berkeley novel would be far better were it by Frances Iles, you will hopefully appreciate my point. I thought it worth looking at the genre’s arch convention-challenger — one of the four most important male authors of his era, according to some attractive genius — for the 1937 Crimes of the Century and have come away somewhat confused, bemused, muddled, harried, and generally all a-fluster.