- By Vernon Loder
- First published: UK: Collins, 1938
When Jean Maze agreed to tell fortunes at the Nursing Association Bazaar at Ingle Parva, she didn’t predict murder, or that her crystal ball would become the weapon. While she is on her lunch break, a corpse is discovered in the fortune-teller’s tent: a businessman was bonked on the bonce, then dressed up in the sibyl’s costume. Marden was secretary to Smith, managing director of a company Jean’s brother-in-law and his partner wanted to control; could business rivalry have resulted in murder? Or did Smith commit the murder in a fit of homicidal mania?
Vernon Loder does very little wrong here. Choose Your Weapon is a tighter, more carefully plotted detective story than his first, The Mystery at Stowe, a decade before. It’s mildly amusing, with some catty social commentary; it’s mildly well characterized, and we know the people more than we do in (say) Crofts or Rhode; the puzzle is sensibly structured and worked out; and there’s a touch of pathos at the end. The book’s chief flaw, as the Times Literary Supplement complained, is that it needs a map, but Loder doesn’t share the police plan of the hall with the reader.
In fact, Choose Your Weapon is by no means a bad book, just not a good one. It’s run-of-the-mill, perfectly adequate entertainment, the Thirties detective fiction equivalent of a Sunday night TV murder mystery like Midsomer Murders. It never makes you want to throw the book across the room or throttle yourself with your own entrails; it’s pleasantly written; it never bores or annoys, but it never enthrals, either.
In fact, it’s competent – and competence doesn’t cut it. “If you’re only competent, you’re not good enough. I want achievers!”
Jean Maze thought it rather good fun to be a fortune-teller at the local bazaar. So she dressed the part, acquired a crystal, and called herself “Sourah the Sorceress”. Crowds of people, including wealthy business friends, and enemies, of her brother-in-law, flocked to her tent. But when rival business interests mix in such surroundings, who could possibly foretell that murder would result? Choose Your Weapon sets an ingenious problem that will keep the reader guessing to the very end, and Mr. Loder’s clever character studies of sinister people could not be bettered.
Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 3rd April 1937): Under the platform, in halls where bazaars are held, there is usually a maze of dressing-rooms and dark passages, well suited for murdering your enemy, or someone mistaken for the enemy, if you happen to run into him. And the contrast between bazaar frivolities and the at-last-discovered corpse can be made a striking scene – especially if someone has dressed the corpse in the robes of Mrs. Maze, the crystal gazer, while that attractive young widow is out lunching.
Although the scene is Ingle Parva, capital of a western county, the victim and the suspects are all connected with the City of London and its financial cannibalism. The arguments for and against each suspect depend so much on the relative position of doors and passages that the reader can hardly follow them without a plan. No miraculous amateur helps the police, though they pay justifiable compliments to the young widow’s powers of observation and deduction. At the end the police remain baffled, but the reader is let into the secret.
The Observer (Torquemada, 11 April 1937): I have praised Vernon Loder’s work before, and it is a pleasure to be able to do so again. I doubt whether in all the long list of his books he has ever done anything better than Choose Your Weapon, and he has certainly not before created a character so attractive and discriminated as Jean Maze. This lady, though she does no detecting in the ordinary sense, cleverly guides the footsteps of the by no means unintelligent Superintendent Dale. Though the police never clear up this thrice-bedevilled murder of a Company lawyer at Ingle Parva, Mrs. Maze does, and a very tragic, but entirely convincing, solution it is that she reaches.