Sunday, 20 July 2014

Penguin no. 1610: The Doors of Sleep
by Thurman Warriner

'Lahsen was a great man. He dabbled in occult mysteries, he put forward theories of life and death and time more fantastic than any man of his generation. But he was sincere, humble, reverent. He was trying to establish some relationship between man and God and the universe. Vinery had no such lofty ambitions when he became one of Lahsen's disciples. Shand was undoubtedly right -Vinery was after a short cut to personal power. I've known Vinery a long time. Nothing wrong with his intellect, but he's a mass of superstitious foibles. The type of man who'd use the electronic brain to win at roulette instead of measure the galaxies. You'd find him deep in archaic rites on Saturday midnight and reading his horoscope in the Sunday press next morning.'

Moira of Clothes in Books wrote two posts on The Doors of Sleep (here and here), before very kindly sending her vintage Penguin copy on to me*. These perhaps suggest that her enthusiasm for the book was a little muted, whereas I loved it from the very first page.

It is late September and Archdeacon Toft has been invited to give the Harvest Thanksgiving sermons at Slumbers St Mary's, the local church of a set of three idyllic villages collectively known as The Slumbers, located somewhere on the south Downs. Archdeacon Toft's ample size is evidence of his enthusiasm for food, and he feels no inclination to accept the hospitality offered by the local rector Smeaton whom he describes as 'that damned ascetic of a priest'. Knowing that the Vinerys employ a decent cook, it is his intention to pass his weekend at Vinery Court, despite the reservations he has about its owner.

He describes his host, Charlesworth Vinery, as 'beautiful as Lucifer, clever as Zamiel, cruel as Beelzebub', and as the man seems hated by his young wife, his brother and his manservant, Archdeacon Toft's reservations about Charlesworth Vinery seem to be shared by many who know him. Vinery had spent most of his early years abroad, but he had returned to the village upon the death of his father with the intention of taking up his inheritance, even though he had no knowledge about, or interest in, the family estate; in doing so he had effectively evicted a younger brother who loved nothing else. Within a month of his return he had also married the woman his brother loved, and he had then run the estate into the ground.

There is no one to mourn Charlesworth Vinery when he found dead in the most bizarre of circumstances: bound hand and foot to a golden cockerill while revolving on a steam-powered roundabout.  It is one of the rides available at the Harvest Fair, a ride operated by the itinerant showman Amen Sleep. There seems no end to the possible motives, nor to the list of potential murderers, but the intriguing questions remain: how was it brought about, and why was it effected in just that way?

For while Vinery could be considered a powerful man, putatively the possessor of powers which no one could explain and which enabled him to summon illusions and to control the actions of others, he was also a physically weak man, the victim of a creeping paralysis which has him confined to a wheelchair. How then did the murderer convey him to a fairground located some distance from his home, late at night and in the dark, and how was he hoisted upon Sleep's carousel?

It was the interaction between Archdeacon Toft and his friend Mr Ambo, inadvertently accompanying him on the weekend of the murder, that I really enjoyed; the story of the Vinerys simply provided a context. In these two characters Thurman Warriner offers a portrayal of ageing at odds with that normally encountered, for while they are both keenly aware of their increasing decrepitude, their advancing years bring a kind of calmness and wisdom to their discussions, so that I found their conversations a delight to read.

And Archdeacon Toft is entertaining simply in himself, particularly with respect to his obsessions: while he is perfectly willing to forgo sleep during the search for his host, he never considers forgoing his food, and he combines this enthusiasm for food with an enthusiasm for American crime fiction. As the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his host deepens, his conversation becomes increasingly peppered with idiomatic phrases imbibed from his reading.

It is Archdeacon Toft, Mr Ambo and a few of their friends who eventually work out how the murder was effected and who is responsible. The author clearly anticipates that his reader will have a far greater familiarity with their past adventures than I possessed, along with some knowledge of their friends, as there are characters who enter into this story without any explanation or introduction and that could be confusing at times. This seems to be one of a series of books featuring the pair, although the only one published as a vintage Penguin, as I cannot find another which was written by Warriner. And this seems to me a shame, as I would have liked to have encountered Archdeacon Toft and Mr Ambo again.

First published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1955. Published in Penguin Books 1961.

From the inside front cover:
"In his detective novels, [Thurman Warriner] is interested not so much in police methods and procedure as in the way life contrives to make saints and murderers out of the same basic material."

*And this week another parcel of green-spined Penguins arrived courtesy of Moira:




3 comments:

  1. Do you know what, since re-reading it I have read quite a lot of other Golden Age detective stories, and I think if I was in the business of giving grades, I would have upgraded my decision on this one, and set it closer to your verdict. It was a memorable and interesting book, and it keeps popping into my mind since then. I managed to get hold of one other book by him (it's on the blog here http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/deaths-dateless-night-by-thurman.html) but not a Penguin. He seems to have disappeared completely - a shame I think. Glad you enjoyed it, and so glad the other books arrived!

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  2. http://www.detecs.org/toft.html

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  3. This is to let you know that I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award
    --- please see here for the details
    http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/inspiring-blog-award.html
    And thank you for the inspiration….

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