Sunday, 15 February 2015

Penguin no. 1108: Murder in Time
by Elizabeth Ferrars

     'But why should you feel you ought to hate him?' she asked. 'Don't most of us do more hating than we ought to?'
     'Not really,' he said. 'Not the hate that leads to anything. We're all pretty good at hating phantoms - that's why we don't mind making war - but someone who's standing quite close to you, looking at you, talking to you, seeming to like you, not threatening you in any way - it's extraordinary what that does to you, even when you've been choking with hatred. But I think that's mostly weakness and cowardice.'

Murder in Time conforms to a stereotype of the conventional Golden Age mystery insofar as it features a murder at an isolated country home during a weekend party, and a constrained set of suspects for each of whom a plausible motive can be inferred.

But the question of who killed the victim seems barely of interest in this novel, and the police investigation is really only sketched in the background. The real mystery which intrigues those gathered together in the country home is why they were invited to be there in the first place, and just what might have transpired had the murder not taken place. And these are such diverting questions that it is the suspects themselves who take the initiative in the murder investigation.

Mark Auty's initial explanation for his weekend house party always sounds suspicious. His claim is that he intends to celebrate his engagement to the wealthy Miss Barbarosa, but he eschews family and friends as invitees in favour of a select group of acquaintances he hasn't seen or spoken with in many years. It is hard to see how he could ever consider that such a disparate group could form the basis of a successful social gathering: his guests come from different parts of England, from different strata of society, and from differing age groups. In support of this odd behaviour he implies that he wants to parade his lack of embarrassment about his lowly origins so that his fiancée can see that he doesn't consider her family's wealth makes her any better than the people he has known during his life.

But with a single exception, no one who has known Mark Auty buys this story. And yet while his guests might be perplexed by their invitations, not one of them feels inclined to decline - but then he is offering each of them an all-expenses-paid weekend on the Riviera, which is a difficult invitation to refuse. They are to spend the Friday night at his home in the country and then to travel by a specially-chartered plane to Nice on the Saturday afternoon. There they will be entertained at the expense of the Barbarosa family for the weekend before being flown home on the Monday. But at almost the last moment there is a hitch which means that Auty will not be travelling with his guests as planned. And a few hours later he is murdered, which means that none of them will be heading to France on this weekend.

The novel begins with a description of the various conversations triggered by the arrival of the invitations. Each one causes consternation, because - notwithstanding the time which has passed since they last saw him - not one of these people would consider Auty to be a friend. Every person invited suspects Auty of an ulterior motive, and yet each invitation is accepted, although the reasons given vary. For Herbert and his mother Mrs Kenny it is out of curiosity as to what Auty is up to, for Denis and Violet Pointing it is because they have a seemingly irresolvable problem for which they hope Auty will provide the solution, and for Alec Marriner it is simply revenge; he packs his revolver and indulges a fantasy about bringing about Auty's death. And at the last moment, Auty invites a woman he meets in the street after she is witness to a fatal accident.

I found this to be a really engaging novel, and was delighted by the way Ferrars gradually introduces the back story so that we come to understand the various guests' hesitations. The only flaw is that Auty's ulterior motive was so easily guessed that it was frustrating to have to watch on as a group of seemingly obtuse individuals failed to see what was completely apparent. But this is only a transient problem, as once it is pointed out to them by Inspector Hughes, the story becomes more interesting.

The murder itself may be a side issue to the plot, but its eventual solution is interesting in that it is presented as a question of psychology, the argument being that motive and opportunity may be necessary, but they are hardly sufficient. This seemed almost an implied criticism of crime fiction generally - the propensity to resort to murder is presented here as a question of character, with most people incapable of committing it, incapable even of feeling real hatred, because of the way they respond to others.

First published 1953. Published in Penguin Books 1955.


  1. Great review. Ferrars at this time clearly was trying "modernize" the traditional detective novel and has been under appreciated in this regard.

  2. Great review. Ferrars at this time clearly was trying "modernize" the traditional detective novel and has been under appreciated in this regard.

  3. I discovered your thoughtful blog via Danielle of A Work in Progress.
    What a fascinating venture! What I felt, reading a group of your reviews, was how much good writing is/ was out there and has now pretty much sunk beneath the waves of time...
    One wonders whether there are many vanished treasures which might be resurrected rather like Nicola Beaumont has done with the Persephone books.
    Anyway, happy reading.

  4. Hi Karyn - your review inspired me to re-read this book, and I did a post on it here, with a shoutout for you



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