There is a lot to be said for not letting your heroes grow up. From Jonathan Creek’s middle-aged ennui to the doddery old bastard many authors have tried to tell us Sherlock Holmes became, the majority of attempts to drag these fictional wonders into ‘reality’ typically turn in a strong argument in favour of youthful literary immortality. I already know scores of middle-aged men who regret their life choices; I do not know any impossible crime-solving magician’s assistants who live in windmills — that’s why I seek escape in fiction. If want to watch a man slowly disintegrate under his own self-loathing, there are plenty of mirrors in my house.
Do you find yourself lulled into an erudite hebetude by too many stories blethering on instead of simply getting down to the plot and relevant incidents? Well, Max Afford’s fifth novel runs to 116 pages and probably doesn’t contain a single one that does not in some way contribute to the interpretations or solutions of the central conundrums. A sea-faring mystery in the Death on the Nile (1937) school, a small group of characters are gathered on a liner heading out from Sydney, Australia to some islands because…reasons…when mysterious phone calls, mysterious passengers, mysterious relationships, and mysterious pasts all converge for a cavalcade of enigmas wrapped in queries and shrouded in deepest sinisterlyness.
Philo Vance. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Raspberry Jam by Carolyn Wells. ‘The Fairy Tale of Father Brown’ by G.K. Chesterton. The Clue of the New Pin by Edgar Wallace. A character who is detective novelist of some repute. Characters in a detective story discussing whether they are behaving like people in a detective story. All these references and more can be found in the opening salvo of Max Afford’s debut novel, following the discovery of a man stabbed in the back in his locked study with the only key to the specially-constructed lock in his possession, the murder weapon missing, and some subtly esoteric clews that give rise to plenty of canny evaluation and then re-evaluation. Aaah, I love the Golden Age.
It’s doubtless a result of the generation I’m from that when I think about fictional murderers wearing distinctive costumes the first jump my mind makes is to the Ghostface killers of Wes Craven’s Scream films. If you’re a little older than me, you may go for Freddy Krueger’s striped jumper, and if you’re younger than me I have no idea what you might pick because I have lost track of whatever passes for popular culture these days, but for me it’s Ghostface.
I believe the philosopher John Francis Bongiovi, Jr. said it best: “Keep the faith”. The Dead Are Blind is the third novel by Max Afford I’ve read and, having hugely enjoyed the other two, I found myself struggling to maintain interest through the opening chapters. Certainly from a historical perspective they have plenty to offer – our lead characters are invited to tour a radio studio on its opening night, something of a gala event at the time, and so this is chock-full of fascinating tidbits from Afford’s own experience of working in radio. But the mix of dense description and fixation on minute details that are hugely unlikely to become relevant later puzzled even my will and left me a bit apathetic by the end of chapter two.
It’s Max Afford Week on The Invisible Event…not through any design, but purely because I selected his novel The Dead Are Blind (1937) as my review this coming Thursday and the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ chosen topic of ‘Poison’ gives me the chance to look at one of the three short stories in the Ramble House collection Two Locked-Room Mysteries and a Ripping Yarn. But, hey, that’s no bad thing, as Afford is one of my discoveries of the last year or so and it’s always nice to shine a little light his way.
An isolated ancestral home ruled over by an eccentric patriarch with a keen interest in esoterica and a private museum of medieval weapons, into which an eager young man is brought by an acquaintance only for murder to insinuate its way among the denizens…yup, John Dickson Carr’s The Bowstring Murders (1933) certainly is a classic of the genre. What’s that you say? Death’s Mannikins? Oh, wow, uh, this is awkward. Okay, let’s start again: an isolated ancestral home ruled over by an eccentric patriarch with a keen interest in esoterica and a private museum of medieval weapons, into which an eager young man is brought by an acquaintance only for murder to insinuate its way among the denizens…yeah, no, there’s no getting away from those similarities. And, y’know what? I only bring it up because there’s more than a touch of Carr about this, Afford’s second Jeffery Blackburn novel, and that’s really not a bad thing.
I mean, take the following:
It was as though the second tragedy acted as sudden leaping flames under a simmering pot. The scalding, seething flux exploded and boiled over, galvanizing each person under that roof into an insane panic that throbbed and hummed and zoomed from cellar to tower with the horrible impotence of a monstrous and unclean bluebottle trapped against a window.