- By Roger East
- First published: UK: Collins, 1960
I like drinking cider; I’m less keen on reading about it. This is the detective story, 1960s vintage – which is to say: not really a detective story at all. The murder is committed before the story begins; the narrator (an oil-geologist and would-be writer, poor sod) returns from Teheran when his fiancée breaks off her engagement; her brother might have screwed and shot a Danish sexpot. For the first half, there is almost no detection – no alibis or clues or questioning suspects. Instead, there are the Biarritz casino; an eccentric anthropologist; Ernst Kretschmer’s typology; a hangdog policeman; concern that the narrator’s father won’t get a job at Buckingham Palace; more concern the narrator’s fiancée might have done it; and speculation about “deep psychopathic unconscious incest jealousy”. Halfway through, we get some detection, largely about cider casks, how long it would take to empty one using a pipe (like a fiendish mathematical problem), and how wet someone’s knees would be if they were standing half-submerged in a barrel of cider. The murderer is the main suspect, obvious some 40 or 50 pages before the end.
This is better written, better characterized, and better dialogued than most detective stories from the Thirties (including East’s own Murder Rehearsal), but the plotting is wayward. Some detective readers think the basics of fiction – atmosphere, style, characterization, even story, let alone imagination and depth – are mere window-dressing; all that matters is the corpse and the clewing. I, thank Zeus, am not one of them, but there must in a detective story be a balance. This, like many post-Fifties detective stories, rambles atrociously; it’s all over the place, without form. The advantage of the murder mystery is that it imposes structure, like (in that hackneyed old simile) a sonnet or a symphony. This is almost E.E. Cummings or Ezra Pound set to music by Boulez or Webern.
Robin Talliby gave up his job and came home from Teheran when Nigel Standing, brother of his fiancée Fleur, was openly suspected of murdering his neighbour’s glamorous wife, Greta Bewlay, who had been found shot in her husband’s cider house. Fleur refused to involve Robin and his parents in the ensuing trouble, broke off their engagement and went abroad. Robin refused to give up the girl he loved and managed to trace her. In France chance led them to Jack Mors, a man with supreme confidence in his strange theories of biotypology, who declared flatly that a man of Nigel’s type could never have committed the murder. Mors’s friend Virginia Maye, a barrister, had sufficient faith in his judgement to go over all the evidence again. Heartened by the confidence of Mors and prompted by Virginia to probe aspects of the case which had apparently been overlooked, Robin went to Somerset and began to ask questions. The results were sudden and dangerous. The murderer was fighting back.
Kingston Black, Roger East’s seventh crime novel, is a fascinating combination of ingenuity, imagination, and excitement.
Time and Tide: Thrills like a box of vipers.