The four 'friends' of the title could not really be considered friends — they would be better described as uneasy co-vacationers, each of whom carries a secret enmity within his heart.
These men are all fairly well up the social scale and sufficiently wealthy that they can spend their New Year break at the Magnifico, putatively the most expensive and luxurious hotel in England. Yet each is guilty of having committed a crime, at least in terms of the laws which applied at the time, although their transgressions remain secret, or known only to a few. This has left two of the men vulnerable, and all of the men dangerous.
But the aspect I found most intriguing was this often-encountered idea, at least in the older Penguins, that the optimal solution to the affair will be the one in which none of the men need suffer the consequences of their irregular actions. It will be considered ideal, should no one end up murdered, if everything can be set to right without the involvement of police or lawyers, and without anyone ever finding out what they have done. Each man's reputation will then be left unsullied, and his family, friends and business associates will be shielded from the shame which pertains to knowing someone who has behaved inappropriately. I always wonder, when I encounter this attitude in an old Penguin, if the misdemeanours and transgressions of the lower classes were viewed in quite the same way.
I would certainly wish to know if my financial adviser had ever helped himself to funds under his management in order to fund his gambling habit and his lavish lifestyle, even if it had always been his intention to repay the money before being found out - isn't this what they invariably intend before events forestall the less fortunate? But this is exactly what Toby Barrick has been up to, and should it ever become widely known it will mean, as it should, the end of his career, and as it will undermine the viability of the firm of which he is partner, it will simultaneously wreck the prospects of Charles Sandham.
Another of the friends, Evelyn Bannister, turns out to be a blackmailer, and at least one man has committed suicide as a direct consequence of his greed. The last, Piers Gradon, has a temper so violent that he has been responsible for the deaths of two men. Only Sandham, Barrick's partner, could be considered guilty of a victimless crime.
But the earlier misdeeds committed by these four are not the focus of this story; they simply serve as catalyst for the action which follows. The Case of the Four Friends is about the pre-detection of a murder, or possibly of a series of murders, and about the efforts of one man, who believes he can see into the hearts and minds of his friends and acquaintances and perceive their intentions, to ensure that none of the hypothetical murders ends up being committed.
For it is Ernst Brendel's assertion that the forensic methods of the amateur detective can be applied in advance of any crime in order to prevent it rather than to solve it. A motive may be inferred through careful observation and informed interpretation, an intention may be deduced, and then with additional reflection on the constraints imposed by time and place, the murderer's most likely plan can be determined.
He supports this contention with an anecdote of a recent adventure in which he contends that he pre-detected not one murder, but four, maintaining that he realised that he was in the presence of four potential murderers and four potential victims after a single conversation with the four men in the bar at the Magnifico on New Year's Eve. Each man was unaware of the danger he faced; only Brendel was aware that the four men constituted a network of intent and danger.
Brendel tells his story in the Senior Common Room of St Thomas's College to a sceptical but interested audience who are fairly practised at detecting the flaws in any argument. But no one raised the point which concerned me — I thought the flaw in Brendel's philosophy was that it was underpinned by a conception of the future which was deterministic in nature rather than stochastic. The premise seemed to me original but unconvincing, although I really enjoyed the ending.
And I enjoyed what followed even more: in the closing chapter, styled as an Introduction, J.C. Masterman sets himself up as his own reviewer, and the tone he adopts is a harsh one. But irrespective of how critical of his own tale he may have been, he doesn't address the aspect which troubled me.
First published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1956. Published in Penguin Books in 1961. My copy was a gift from Moira of Clothes in Books who discusses The Case of the Four Friends here.
By the same author:
Penguin no. 220: An Oxford Tragedy