Monday, 28 February 2011
Penguin no. 266: The Dying Alderman by Henry Wade
The story begins with an altercation at a town meeting. It is only verbal; there is an allegation of corruption made against an unnamed committee member, and a suggestion that the Mayor is little more than a figurehead. It all seems rather tame to this modern reader, but in the context of the story, speaking out in this way is seen as very poor form. The alderman who makes the allegations is dead within an hour, drowning in his blood after being stabbed in the throat with a swiss army knife. In his last few minutes he scratches the letters MA on a scrap of paper.
Chief Constable Race is in charge, but his is a recent appointment, from the military rather than the police force, and he has no experience in crime investigation. This seemed an unusual departure from the typical mystery format - the main 'detective' behaving just as people actually do: having to act but being unsure of exactly what to do, and not getting it completely right. The local police superintendent Vorley arrives at the crime scene and seems enthusiastic. But he is a small town policeman, and he is also out of his depth, having never dealt with a murder before, but his lack of aptitude for the necessary investigation is something he would never recognise or acknowledge. Lacking confidence in Vorley, Race calls in Scotland Yard, and so Inspector Lott also joins the investigation. The three men work independently towards their own solutions.
This is a novel about the process of solving a crime; three different approaches are contrasted. Most attention is focused on the methods employed by Inspector Lott, and we follow him almost step by step, thought by thought. Chief Constable Race reaches his conclusion after reflecting on a few small details that don't quite fit, but then investigates no further, waiting to see if the other men independently conclude the same. Superintendent Vorley is swayed by gossip, and jumps to conclusions, never quite thinking the matter through. Lott is detached, methodical, systematic and thorough. He casts his net wide looking for clues, and builds his case slowly, checking all his facts and sewing up loose ends.
In this way the reader is cleverly manipulated into forming a set of expectations about the likely results of these investigations. The portrayl of Vorley is not sympathetic; there is a rivalry between Vorley and Lott that is fundamental to the story. Vorley is small minded and resents the intrusion of Scotland Yard; Lott, aware of his intellectual superiority, enjoys the sport of baiting the man who outranks him. There is never any doubt that the thoroughness of Lott has him on the right track, and the story appears to be a study in effective versus ineffective methods of policing; the actual crime and its solution seems secondary.
But in the end it isn't that simple. There is no way to discuss it further without spoiling the ending. I'll just say I thought it was cleverly done.
Link: The British golden age of detection's deposed crime kings