- By Roger East
- First published: UK: Collins, 1933; US: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933
Any genre inevitably becomes about itself. In the 1920s, detective writers experimented with the conventions of the genre, labouring to define and perfect the mystery: What would happen if the Watson was the murderer? Or the detective was wrong? By 1929, Anthony Berkeley (The Poisoned Chocolates Case) and Agatha Christie (Partners in Crime) were parodying the Detection Club and their fellow authors. In the 1930s, the detective story went meta. “We’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not,” proclaimed Gideon Fell. Christie’s self-parody Ariadne Oliver grumbled about her gangling Finnish sleuth, and Michael Innes’s Spider stepped out of the pages of fiction to persecute his creator; in a later case, John Appleby, halfway up the Amazon and searching for a telepathic horse, confesses that he has never heard of Innes. Then there’s Cameron McCabe’s Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, of course…
Roger East’s Murder Rehearsal is one of the most meta. A detective novelist, one Colin Knowles, outlines the plot of his next book, and discovers that the fictional events are happening in reality. His former girlfriend’s father, businessman Sir Humphrey Durant, falls off a cliff in Sussex; another businessman is found in a car full of exhaust fumes, shot through the chest; and a theatre magnate dives into an empty swimming pool and smashes his head in. As Oscar Wilde remarked: Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.
It seemed to Colin … as if his story had become a Frankenstein: as if his characters were all coming to life and playing the parts he had invented. Was his pen bewitched, the instrument of sympathetic magic? If he went on writing, would the future inexorably unroll on the ruled page of Straker’s A-1 quality exercise-book? And if so, was it within his power to alter it, or would he, ironically, by thinking to alter it, merely approximate more closely to the events that were to happen? Sometimes by telling fortunes, you made the fortune come true, because expecting something to happen, one subconsciously worked towards its attainment. But a book is written when it is conceived, before pen is put to paper. It was too late now to recall the thought waves which he had given out, and had been received and had decoded themselves supranormally in conditioning the acts of a murderer.Part Five: Chapter Five
Murder Rehearsal was the second of Roger East’s six detective stories written during the 1930s. Good luck finding them; 25 Sanitary Inspectors (1935) was reprinted in the 1980s, four of them aren’t listed on ABE, and the fifth is yours for a mere £2,100 (almost $3,000 US). After an 18-year hiatus, East wrote three more in the Fifties and Sixties; these are more common, but may be more thrillerish than detection.
Although almost impossible to find, East’s books were praised at the time. It’s almost obligatory to quote “Dr. Watson” in the Manchester Evening Chronicle: “It is my deliberate and considered judgement that he seems likely to become one of the small band of really first-class detective-story writers.” The News Chronicle wrote of a later book: “I discovered Mr. East only recently, but how delightful a discovery! There is about this book a flavour of exquisite intelligence, that subtle thing which is style, which is culture, which is irony and common sense. Mr. East is certain of our increasing attention.” And in the USA, Lucy Templeton thought Murder Rehearsal and Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man “the two best mystery stories I have read in a twelvemonth and between the two I should choose Murder Rehearsal”. (So would I. I started The Thin Man, but thought life is too short to read Dashiell Hammett.)
Murder Rehearsal reveals an intelligent connoisseur of the genre, who has thought carefully about the theory of the detective story, and is also sound on the practice. We are treated to Colin’s reflections on his craft.
Readers solve not the mystery, but the mystery writer.
“The reader doesn’t really follow the clues, or rather the clues he follows are not the ones the author intended. The real clues are such things as the way the author introduced his characters. The comic ones, for instance, you can rule out: also the very minor characters, because you expect the author to play fair. Then there is this question of names: and you can rule out the real bad lot. The real clues are the inflections of the author’s style, the balance, and the proportion.”Part One: Chapter One
Murder descriptions always fall rather flat.
“The vocabulary of horror is limited. Murders in murder mysteries are necessary evils: so are casualties to the general working out grand strategy. I think you could make a very good and exciting mystery out of the death of a canary.”Part Two: Chapter One
In the same chapter, the first body is found at the foot of a cliff; it’s reported entirely by dialogue, over the telephone, and by the time the police arrive, the body has been taken away.
Alibis are more important in detective fiction than in actual police work.
“We’ll keep off it a bit. All those convenient clocks and watches, and a world full of people saturated with the sense of time. Besides, an alibi is dependent on an observer, and therefore of only secondary validity. I’m going to be purer in fiction, and rely on orange pips, and the classical parsley on the melting butter.”Part Four: Chapter One
People read detective stories because they are potential murderers.
“Murder is the one crime we come near to. I can’t imagine myself stealing or forging. I’ve got too much sense. But murder comes out of the emotions, often the moral emotions. And we are all governed by those.”Part Five: Chapter One
And cleverly, Colin’s bright thoughts on detective fiction hold a major clue; what seems merely criticism is criminology.
Like many British detective stories, this is not quite a whodunnit. The history of the ‘Common Denominator Murder Mystery’ (from detective story to play to film script) and the identity of the murderer – an insane vendettist – are not solved by deduction, but by the amateur detectives talking to people who have information. We are on an equal footing with the sleuths, but it is less satisfying than a formal puzzle plot. At the end, however, Superintendent Simmonds hits a snag in the shape of an insurmountable alibi; another alibi points to an entirely unsuspected person. A fair play plot has been concealed underneath. One may wish for a few more clues, but the design is logical and simple.
Now if only the rest were easier to find!
The engagement between Colin Knowles, writer of detective stories, and Andria, a promising young actress, has been broken off, and he is in the right mood for planning three safe and cunning methods of murder for his new book. Parallel with the writing of the book occur three mysterious deaths, which start with the discovery of the body of Andria’s father at the foot of a Sussex cliff. Superintendent Simmonds suspects murder, but it is left to Louie, Colin’s secretary – a young woman whom nobody takes very seriously – to link together the three murders, and then to connect them with Colin’s book – which is not yet completed. Here is a brilliant and strikingly original idea for a mystery story, and Roger East skilfully handles his novel theme. Murder Rehearsal is an extremely clever story which will establish the reputation of its talented author.
1933 Alfred A. Knopf (US)
A well-known detective-story writer begins work on a tale of triple murder. Then, as the tale progresses, imagination becomes stark reality – three actual murders, paralleling those in Colin Knowles’s manuscript, set all of England ashudder! What is the monstrous link between fiction and fact? Was it coincidence? Or did six murders – three real and three imaginary – have a common origin? You will relish Roger East’s jaunty and civilized treatment of as strange a problem as has ever been presented to lovers of mystery fiction.
Times Literary Supplement (27th July 1933):
Mr. Roger East has chosen a most interesting and original plot for his detective story, and has worked it out, on the whole, very competently and perfectly fairly. The problem of accounting for the murders of an apparently worthy gentleman of title, a disreputable voluptuary and a company director is ingeniously anticipated in the synopsis of a novel, called “The Common Denominator Mystery,” which Colin Knowles is preparing with the help of a sympathetic secretary. At first the connexion between this triple murder in fiction and the reality seems rather obscure, and the story flags a little, while the reader is made to jump backwards and forwards from one group of people to another. Gradually, however, Mr. East finds his way through the Pirandellian jungle, using Inspector Simmonds as a level-headed and capable guide. For the connoisseur, the chief merit of this book lies in the validity of a single alibi; on this alibi the solution of the mystery depends. The less exacting reader will admire the easy dialogue and the air of plausibility. For the rest, there is a well-planned and exciting chase, culminating in the arrest of the very last person the unsuspecting reader would suspect.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 19th August 1933):
Murder Rehearsal, one of the Crime Club books, is about at Crime Club level, which is always respectable but rarely exhilarating. The theme is a group murder, obviously the work of a lunatic. This makes one look twice at every suspicious stranger who crops up in the story, which makes our task of spotting the killer easier than that of Superintendent Simmonds, who has not our advantages. Naturally, with several murders to detail, there is no lack of action. The coincidence which enables the crimes to be traced is the best idea in the book. I may have to, but I’m not very eager to attend another case with the ox-like Superintendent.
Dr. Watson in the Manchester Evening Chronicle: Who in the world is Mr. Roger East? It is my deliberate and considered judgement that he seems likely to become one of the small band of really first-class detective-story writers.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Elizabeth C. Moore, 10 February 1934):
The English murder-story writer, Roger East, represents a distinct find by his publisher (Knopf), as the ancient verse quoted to open “Murder Rehearsal” is a find by the author. The plot resembles that of a striking story reviewed two weeks ago in tying up actual murders with imaginary ones being worked out by a novelist – in this case Colin Knowles, the breaking of whose engagement to a promising young actress gets the story started. Three killings follow, all looking like accidents and none apparently related to the others. It is Colin’s smart young woman secretary who finds a link between them, and so puts Scotland Yard on the right track. The story is dramatic and convincing, written with an urbane wit that will endear it to the fussy.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel (Lucy Templeton, 25 February 1934):
Colin Knowles’s engagement had been broken but he remained on friendly terms with Andria and her new fiancé, Tony. To the latter he changed to tell the plot of a mystery story which he was engaged in writing.
Soon after, three apparently unrelated murders occur. Andria’s father is the first victim. Tony is struck by the similarity of the three murders, all planned to look like suicide, with the plot Colin had told him. Moreover, the dead men’s professions were the same as those of Colin’s victims. Colin’s secretary is struck by the same coincidence. The unravelling of this mystery leads to a blood curdling denouement.
Very skilfully planned and interestingly written.
Murder Rehearsal and The Thin Man are the two best mystery stories I have read in a twelvemonth and between the two I should choose Murder Rehearsal.