During a blackout in November 1945, Bruce Mallaig sits alone on a bench in London’s Regent’s Park, and is soon the observer of a series of perculiar and frightening events. He hears someone on a nearby bridge and then hears them climbing over the railings to hide underneath. Moments later, another man walks onto the bridge and asks “Anyone about”. A match is struck and, in the quick flare of its flame, a fourth man’s face appears “no body, just a sullen dark face.” In the darkness that follows he here’s a dull thud, followed by the sound of a body falling, then silence.
What an exciting start to a mystery! Sadly, this does not continue and the story just plods along. It is filled with interviews, re-interviews, reenactments, and re-reenactments, interspersed with short spurts of action, which are pretty dull themselves. When an air-raid occurs during the course of the investigation it is so tedious, filled more with discussion than action. And the book could have done without the last chapter, in which Lorac’s chief protagonist, Chief Inspector Robert MacDonald (who I loved in Murder In The Mill-race), goes into excruciating detail to summarize the overelaborate plot to a mixed set of characters for reasons that are beyond me.
Given the beginning, and the setting, this could have been very atmospheric. It falls short by not taking full advantage of the blackout scenario, the terror of murder in a world of darkness with bombs falling around you, or the claustrophobia created by the darkness or a crowded air-raid shelter. The reader is treated to telegraphed clues, all of which are repeated several times for emphasis.
Lorac’s moral debate regarding the victim and the murderer is an aspect that I thought fascinating, but not taken full advantage of. On the one hand, we have the victim, a charming but roguish liar and blackmailer with connections to Sinn Fein who all found useless, but seemingly none hated enough to kill, and yet more than one character felt the murderer did the world a favor by “ridding the world of a blackmailer who lived on other people’s worries.” On the other hand, we have MacDonald who believes “just as soon as a society tolerates private vengeance, that society is…opening an avenue for every abuse which exists.” This theme was repeated several times, but got lost in the tedium of the investigation.
What this does have is a house of eccentric characters who are the most memorable part of the story. Mrs. Maloney, the octogenarian housekeeper who develops a pash for MacDonald; talented illusionist Birdie Rameses and his Missus who just can’t stop talking; Miss Rosie Willing, the older but “obstinately youthful” variety actress. These characters were the liveliest part of the entire book.
Not a terrible book, but rather wearisome. While I have enjoyed Lorac in the past (and hope to again in the future), I have to say this one is just ok. So outside of a few interesting characters, the always informative introduction by Martin Edwards, and the opening chapter, I would say that you can give this one a pass.
My Judgement – 3/5