Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Penguin no. 814: And So To Murder
by Carter Dickson

     Now Monica Stanton, to begin with, had no real grievance against that inoffensive form of entertainment known as the detective-story. She neither liked nor disliked it. She had read a few, which struck her as being rather far-fetched and slightly silly, though doubtless tolerable enough if you liked that kind of thing.
     But by the time her aunt had finished, Monica was in such a state that she had come to curse the day that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born. It was a wordless, mindless passion of hatred. As for Mr William Cartwright - whose name Miss Flossie Stanton, with fiendish ingenuity, managed to drag into the conversation on every subject from tapioca pudding to Adolf Hitler - Monica felt that she would like to poison Mr Cartwright with curare, and dance on his grave.

With all that's been written lately about the Fifty Shades books, their unprecedented success, and the apparently incongruous ordinariness of their television executive-author, it was rather delightful to come across a line in a book which dated from 1941 suggesting that '... ladies who wrote passionate love-stories were usually either tense business-women or acidulated spinsters who petrified every male in the vicinity.'

But that is not the case with the romance novel which features here. Monica Stanton's first novel is apparently quite scandalous, filled with shocking details which have made it past the censors (and sent her sales soaring) but her story is the product of imagination rather than experience. She is a 22 year old innocent whose frustration with her cloistered and constrained life in her father's vicarage, lived under the watchful eye of her priggish aunt Flossie, has her indulging in daydreams and fantasies and then committing them to paper. At first, her aunt preens herself on the the novel's runaway success, but her enthusiasm is dampened when she learns just which literary genre her niece has chosen. And then comes the frequent lament: 'if only Monica had written a nice detective novel', such as those by successful mystery author William Cartwright. With its too-frequent repetition, it is a name Monica Stanton comes to loathe.

When she can withstand it no longer, Monica absconds from the vicarage, and heads to London and a position as scriptwriter for Albion Films at Pineham studios. Unfortunately, even here she cannot escape the spectre of William Cartwright; she finds herself employed to adapt his novel And So To Murder for the screen, and she finds the man himself occupying the adjacent office, similarly adapting her book. Poor Bill must bear the brunt of a seething animosity which would be more fairly directed at the aunt, for Monica sees him only through the filter of her very jaundiced preconception, and she treats him very poorly. But in what is perhaps a parody of the type of love-story often portrayed on-screen, this doesn't seem to deter him in any way. He soon realises that he has fallen for this feisty young woman.

And this is rather fortunate, as she is a young woman in need of protection. On her first afternoon on the film set an attempt is made on her life, and during the following weeks further attempts are made. The inspiration for the would-be murderer's inventive approach is no mystery to Bill Cartwright, as each crime appears to echo an idea he has sketched out for future use in one of his stories; the murderer seems to be working from notes sitting in Cartwright's desk drawer. But recognising the pattern is as far as it goes - he doesn't think to remove the notes, secure his desk, or lock his office...

It is impossible not to notice that almost everything that occurs in this story is facilitated by a widespread laxity with regard to security. Perhaps this is simply a modern perspective, and life was much simpler, and people more trusting, in the past. But these events take place during the first weeks of the war when there must have been some concern with regard to spies and sabotage, and in a film studio shared by many companies, so you would expect some concern about theft, if only of ideas. And yet even when it is recognised that there is some deranged individual lurking about the film lot, no one seems to take even the slightest precaution to thwart him or her: no authority is alerted, Monica continues to go to work, and everything remains unlocked and accessible, almost as if they all these individuals are inherently fatalistic, and blind to the simple actions they could take to mitigate the risk. Fortunately there is Bill Cartwright who, while he never thinks to lock his desk, at least alerts Scotland Yard as to what has been happening, and ultimately brings the murder attempts to the attention of Sir Henry Merrivale.

This is the second Carter Dickson detective novel I have read, and I enjoyed it far more than She Died a Lady, which was published a few years later (though contemporaneously as Penguins). This book was light-hearted and rather tongue-in-cheek, but more importantly the humour was not at the expense of the main characters. While he has his idiosyncrasies, Sir Henry was not presented here as the buffoon as he was in the later book, and this made him far more entertaining with his curmudgeonly, irrascible, and impatient ways, and his infuriated air at being forced to spend his time inevitably in the company of the less-perceptive.

And I have to thank Felicia from San Francisco for sending me this Penguin, along with six others, a delightful card, and four wonderful mini Penguin notebooks.

New books Penguin mini-notebooks


  1. Karyn - Fascinating and thoughtful review of this novel. I have to say I wonder too at the lax security but perhaps it's one of those instances of needing to be willing to suspend one's disbelief just a bit. The characters are interesting and as you say, not made fun of even though there's a sense of humour in the novel. I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

  2. "acidulated spinsters"!!!!!!

    That's great!

  3. This is one of his best. The "oil of vitriol" poured through a speaking tube was just lovely.
    There's also a very funny recurring overheard conversation between a producer and his more educated assistant about making a Hollywood version of the life of the Duke Of Wellington. Had to look up "lollapalloza" in the dictionary.



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