Catt Out of the Bag (Clifford Witting)


Excellent—the best Witting I’ve read so far.  It isn’t a flashy book: the story doesn’t have the shock of Measure for Murder or the ingenious method of Dead on Time, but the plot is tight and the murderer well hidden.  The plot involves the disappearance of a commercial traveller during carol singing in an English village; the commercial traveller (aptly named Thomas Catt) turns out to be a polygamist.  The effect of this revelation on his wives is excellent—one successful and one attempted suicide.  The detection is a good combination of the amateur sleuthing of the arty school (narrated by John Rutherford) and the in-depth detection of the Croftsians (including some Thorndyke work with footprints).  The solution is sharper than Midsummer Murder.  Although the misdirection isn’t as good, the murderer is well concealed and inevitable, and his identity very well clued (tbyq crapvy, fzryy bs cnenssva  —elaborate framework of clues,  of the sort Carr praised in “Grandest Game in the World” essay), and the plot is complex but clear.

  • Dedicated to Reginald J. Davis (wrote three detective stories).
  • Late 1930s: detection solid and genuine (e.g. Rupert Penny), but also wit, characterisation and mystification—increasingly more emphasis on plot (≠ detection) and story than in the 1920s (HOW).
  • Bradfield upper middle / professional class (solicitor’s son).
  • Footprints in garden—physical clues very Freeman.

CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 4th November 1939): KILLING THE CAROL SINGER

Mr. Clifford Witting is a comparatively new author of detective stories who has produced another excellent book.  It begins with a party of carol singers organised by a fearsome lady named Mrs. de Freyne with whom the narrator and his wife are staying before Christmas.  One of the party, a commercial traveller with an obscure background, disappears and is eventually found murdered.  In due course the police investigate and follow a zigzag trail which leads to an unsuspected murderer.  It is a pity that the detection is begun by a couple of amateurs, for this contributes little to the story and merely throws suspicion on one of them, and the meaning of the title is not revealed until near the end.  The motive is a little uncertain and the clues incomplete, but these are minor blemishes.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Plot and characterisation are sound, though Rutherford (Witting’s amateur detective and former proprietor of Voslivres) seems still a bit soft around the edges.  Another weakness is the hauling in of a second amateur, Cloud-Gledhill, who also doubles as suspect.  The tale is perhaps too elaborate for its cargo.