Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Penguin no. 1182: Telling of Murder
by Douglas Rutherford

     'Paddy,' Diana said as I set the fresh glass in front of her, 'I've been thinking. Can't you and I do something together? I mean, you are a private detective. I'm sure the police are very good, but you might be able to do something by sort of - using your intuition.'
     She was looking very earnest and trusting; I liked the way her mouth stayed just a little bit open as she watched me. It gave her an eager expression.
     You've been reading too many Green Penguins. Why, Maguire has just warned me to keep my nose clean. It doesn't work out in real life like it does in detective stories, you know.

The idea that someone might seek to bring down a commercial airliner, unconstrained by any concern for the inadvertent loss of life that such a plan entails, may seem unremarkable these days, but in 1952 it was evidently still an unthinkable idea, a clear sign that some fiendish and immoral organisation was behind the plot on Osborne Vandervell's life.

The first unsuccessful attempt at bringing about his death involves a bomb smuggled onto the plane which carries him from Trieste to London; the second involves poison in his morning coffee injected by syringe into the milk bottle left upon his doorstep overnight. Vandervell suspects these murder attempts will continue, and the only way he is going to survive them will be by returning to Trieste to seek information from his colleagues, together with the assistance of the Venezia Giulia Police Force. To increase the odds of his surviving the trip, he hires private investigator Paddy Regan to act as his chauffeur on the drive back.

But Regan has no idea of what it is that he has signed up for, naively viewing the proposed trip to Trieste by way of Paris as his chance to have a paid holiday on the Continent. He finds the journey to be anything but leisurely, as Vandervell's adversaries are indefatigable; the first half of story tells of one murder attempt after another, attempts that only cease when their objective has been attained. And so while Regan is still alive when they reach Trieste, Vandervell is not, and out of respect to his temporary employer Regan then applies himself to solving the mystery of just why so much effort was expended on bringing about Vandervell's demise.

I thought the most intriguing aspect of this story was a sentence in the blurb which appears on the inside front-cover of this Penguin describing the story as partly factual and going on to suggest that '[h]ere will be found some explanation for the disappearance of high-ranking scientists, agents, and diplomats'. The Free Territory of Trieste was a small region under the direct responsibility of the United Nation Security Council after the Second World War and bordered by Italy and Yugoslavia, both of whom laid claim to it . Contemporary accounts - or at least those I could find - contain frequent references to tensions between the Communist and anti-Communist forces, but no mention of disappearing officials. The Free Territory of Trieste was taken over by its neighbours in 1954.

For the purposes of this story Trieste is a city alongside a port which is being used to facilitate people-smuggling from Eastern Europe to the West. Some of those involved in the smuggling are acting from a humanitarian perspective, but others are merely traffickers, solely concerned with the profit to be gained by taking advantage of those who are desperate in the most despicable ways imaginable.

There were many things that I enjoyed about this story, particularly the unusual setting with its associated history, and a premise and plot which were reasonably interesting. But I felt it was all undermined by writing so poor that it was a real surprise to learn that Douglas Rutherford was a house master at Eton, one who made use of his weekends and holidays to write a series of thrillers. I found the book difficult to take seriously: the first chapter was written in a prose so filled with adjectives that it was difficult to work out what was going on, the style of narration changed dramatically in the second chapter, and because first person narration was used the author struggled with the passages which described events not witnessed by the protagonist.

And the story featured sentences such as '[b]ehind them the house still stared with sightless sockets into the moon's fishy, inquisitive eye'  and so I found myself inadvertently cringing again and again.

First published 1952. Published in Penguin Books 1956.

I wanted to express my thanks to everyone who has written in the past month to pass on their good wishes. I don't yet know how it will all end up but I know that, given the spectrum of possible outcomes, the one we have so far - while it still has its challenges - seems almost miraculous: we have been both incredibly unlucky and remarkably fortunate. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for another very interesting post, Karyn. Telling of Murder looks to be one to pass by. I have an observation, but first want to say how pleased I am that things at your end are showing some rays of hope. Here's wishing that they become brighter still.

    Your opening paragraph has me wondering whether Douglas Rutherford was in some way inspired by the 1949 bombing of a Canadian Pacific airliner over Quebec. It seems to be a forgotten episode, even in my part of the globe, but at the time made international news.

    I don't normally recommend Wikipedia, but find its article on perpetrator Albert Guay spot on. If interested you can find it through this link.

    The only novel I know to have been directly inspired by the incident is Roger Lemelin's Le Crime d'Ovide Plouffe (1982). I'd be surprised if there weren't others.



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