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.
Regular readers of this blog – hello, Mum – will be aware of how much I appreciate die-hard devotees like Fender Tucker and Tom and Enid Schantz, whose (respectively) Ramble House and Rue Morgue Press imprints have for years been keeping the kind of classics everyone had long forgotten about in print just for the love of them. I won’t condescend to imply that everything they publish is of equal quality, but some of it is more equal than others and they have jointly brought some absolute delights to my attention. Unfortunately the latter’s Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert proved not to be my kind of thing and so I couldn’t really review it having not read it, but it does give me a chance to talk about Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness which is published by the former and I read in those bleak and hazy dark days I now think of as ‘pre-blog’.
This is a superbly earnest Golden Age romp – there’s a lot of ejaculating when people speak – with just enough edge of crazy in its setup to elevate it above the standard English Country House Fare: a thief dressed as an owl (it’s okay, you read that correctly) carries out a series of daring thefts before setting their sights on scientist and his particularly valuable Macguffin. A warning note is sent ahead of each crime bearing the legend “Fly by Night!” (interesting fact: the alternative title for this book in certain territories) and when the police are called in to help protect said Macguffin…well, what do you think? Yes, there is a closed circle of suspects; yes, there is a big house; yes, there are shocking revelations and a criss-cross of motivations and deliberate obfuscation; and, yes, there is both a dyed-in-the-wool dogged detective and his talisman genius amateur whom he tolerates and is the one to actually get to the bottom of things. Nevertheless, do not get complacent on account of this classic crime perseveration: we wade just far enough into the tropes of the genre to get you comfortable and then all manner of surprises are pulled out from beneath you…