First published: UK, Gollancz, 1974; US, Dodd, Mead, 1974
“An Arabian Nights affair this, perhaps. Stories within stories.”
‘Stories’ in this one has a double meaning — a pun concealing an ingenious alibi gimmick, relying on Constructivism and symmetry to mislead the reader, who, despite the array of suspicious characters, will probably spot the murderer, but remain unable to work out how until Sir John Appleby solves the mystery — and all in one day, too. There is an over-emphasis on bed-hopping, some strong language (surprising in an author as Wodehousian as Innes) and a sense of time-warp, but this is one of Innes’ better late works, since the plot is solid and well worked out, and the characters, especially Mrs. Catmull, amusing.
A conducted tour of a splendid mansion; a beautifully articulated plot; and Sir John in playfully relaxed mood
“Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother…” Sir John Appleby, that greatest of detectives, is quoting poetry to his friend the Chief Constable, Colonel Pride, as they survey the magnificence of Elvedon Court from the Palladian bridge in the park. And we are at the opening paragraph of another delicious Innes mystery. Sir John is of course rather given to quoting poetry—a surprising trait in an ex-Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, or so Colonel Pride, a plain man himself, feels. But the quotation has a prophetic quality: though neither of them yet knows that inside the great house its owner, Maurice Tytherton, is lying murdered, the line of verse contains an unwitting clue to the solution.
Tytherton was shot dead around eleven o’clock last night. And now, next morning, Pride is taking Appleby over to Elvedon in the hope of interesting him in the curious affair of some stolen pictures. Appleby is not responding with eagerness: he wants to maintain his retired status. But murder is another matter. Especially with such a varied assortment of possible suspects: Tytherton’s young wife, who is having an affair with an eminent surgeon, a house guest; his mistress, Cynthia Graves, whom only yesterday he found in bed with his ne’er-do-well nephew Archie; his son Mark, who has just returned from several years in Argentina, and without announcing his arrival in the vicinity; his secretary, Ramsden, who is almost too efficient to be true; and a couple more house guests—the shady art dealer, Egon Raffaello, and the puzzling Miss Kentwell, who claims to be a promoter of charities.
They all have secrets to hide, and speedily but imperturbably Appleby gets to the bottom of most of them. However, the solution of the murder remains obstinately a problem—until he hits upon the crucial clue.
“Yes,” Appleby muses afterwards, “the entire architecture of the place favoured the deception… Grove nods to grove…”