Sunday, 29 March 2015

Penguin no. 745: Remove the Bodies
by Elizabeth Ferrars

George was a short man, broadly made, with stubby, pink hands and a pink expanse of face. In its rosiness his features made only gentle corrugations. He had fair hair and mild blue eyes and wore a high-necked jersey tucked into trousers of a worn and shiny blue. Photographs of him, full face and profile, as well as a record of his finger-prints, were in the possession of Scotland Yard; but so, doubtless, are those of many other excellent people.

I have spent a fair few hours waiting in airports or travelling by plane  in the last fortnight or so, going from Perth to Canberra via Melbourne, and then from Perth to Adelaide, so I have had no difficulty finding time to read. But the varying time zones and competing distractions and obligations that come with working interstate have meant it has been a struggle to find time to write about the Penguins I have read recently. And so I have been fairly quiet of late.

Beyond Q, Curtin Place, Canberra
The best thing about having to head Canberra was the opportunity it provided to go browsing at Beyond Q, because the last time I planned a visit I ended up stranded in Katoomba en route by unseasonal snow.

Beyond Q is a below-ground bookshop in a nondescript arcade which has an entire wall of its in-house café (almost) devoted to numbered Penguins. They are sorted by colour, and then within-colour by author's name - rather than by number - which meant it was quite a search to find any I didn't yet own. But they have a great selection of older Penguins, priced around the $6 to $10 mark. This is perhaps not bargain-priced, but it is quite a bit cheaper than you would normally find such old Penguins selling for in Perth, and considerably cheaper than the incomprehensible prices I recently saw vintage Penguins selling for in Singapore.

My new Penguins.
In Remove the Bodies, Toby Dyke is a freelance journalist of some renown - one who seems to have earned a reputation for showing up the police. We never learn exactly what has happened in the recent past - perhaps it is covered in the first of the books in which Toby features - but it is evident that Toby and Vanner, the inspector tasked with investigating the unexpected death of a young girl in a country house, have some shared history. Vanner is notably unenthusiastic when Toby turns up at the scene of the murder.

The young girl in question is Lou Capell. Toby Dyke's regard for her had been entirely disinterested; it could even have been described as charitable - a response to her good-natured helplessness and what he clearly perceived as her frequent poor decision making; Toby Dyke wanted to help save Lou Capell from herself. And so although Toby can come across as fairly unpleasant and discourteous at times, and might even be described as callous, his friendship with Lou makes it clear from the beginning that there is more to him than his harsh tongue and abrasive demeanour. And one of the things Toby has going for him is an enigmatic and shrewd companion named George.

It was with evident misgivings that Toby admits Lou Capell when she turns up at his apartment late one night, and that he gives her the cheque for fifteen dollars for which she pleads and provides the bed for the night that she requests. The inconvenience in this latter regard is primarily borne by the indefatigable George who has to give up his bedroom and make do with the sitting room. Toby never manages to learn just why Lou is too frightened to return home to her own bed or just why she suddenly needs such a large sum of money, but the following afternoon he receives a phone call from an unknown caller informing him that Lou is dead, and that his cheque has been recovered. Toby and George head to the house known as Wilmer's End in Surrey, intent on finding out why Lou had been killed.

Lou had been murdered via a mechanism that was immediately apparent to those who discovered her lifeless body: the medication she had been taking to relieve the symptoms of a head cold had been swapped with something more lethal. The rigidity of her corpse suggested strychnine was used as the substitute, but it is later discovered to be a related compound called Brucine, a poison known to have been recently stolen from a research laboratory located nearby. The one thing that is not clear is just how the death of someone as inoffensive as Lou could benefit anyone sufficiently to have them contemplate her murder.

The bizarreness of the means and motive of her murder is mirrored by other odd happenings in the house. Lou had died at the country home of some putative friends who spend many of the hours which follow her death complaining and bickering amongst each other, rather than grieving, and on working to establish their lack of guilt. And one of their number seems intent on rigging up booby traps for the unwary; mechanisms which appear deadly but whose perniciousness has invariably been undermined in some strategic way.

Such a summary only touches on what this novel is about - the story is intricately plotted, bringing in betrayal, blackmail and intrigue, and some additional attempts at murder. And it is wryly amusing, with much of the humour focused on the antics and curtailed conversation of George.

It could perhaps be expected that Inspector Vanner will be on entirely the wrong track for the most of the story, but it is a nice touch that Toby is not really any keener. The hero of this piece turns out to be Toby's taciturn companion George. And I gather from Curtis Evans' review of Give a Corpse a Bad Name that this may be the norm.

First published 1940. Published in Penguin Books 1950. This edition 1954.

By the same author:
Penguin no 1108: Murder in Time


  1. Nice picture of the shelves! I have been ploughing through some Ferrars recently - I always enjoy them but they lack the spark to make them live forever, I think. I read one featuring Toby Dyke - but I think she ditched him quite early on.

  2. "the cheque for fifteen dollars ... Wilmer's End in Surrey"

    Pounds, not dollars, I think.

  3. According to GoodReads, there were 5 Toby Dyke books and yours is #2. The author sounds as if she would interest me, but alas, none of her books are available in our library system (a 30 town consortium in the eastern US.)



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