Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Murder on the Home Front…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Councillor Grayling is an unpleasant man, meaning that plenty of people would be quite happy to see him got out of the way. One evening he turns up at his own door seriously ill and later that night he dies. When the autopsy is carried out, it becomes clear he was poisoned by mustard gas. Suspicion falls on the people he most recently spent time with – his fellow travellers in the carriage of the train he took home from work, each of whom may have had a motive to do away with him. It’s up to Inspector Holly to discover which of them did it, and how…

In Verdict of Twelve, Postgate told the stories of the various jurors who were to serve on a murder trial, showing how their own lives and experiences impacted on the decision they would finally reach. In this one, he adopts a similar approach by telling each of the stories of the train travellers, showing how their lives crossed with Councillor Grayling’s. The result is that the book reads almost like a collection of linked short stories and some of them are excellent in their own right.

First published in 1943, the book is set in the winter of 1942, when WW2 was at its height and Britain was shrouded in the darkness of the blackout. A couple of the stories relate directly to wartime experiences, not to mention the mustard gas being used as the weapon. The others are less directly connected but still give a fascinating picture of life on the Home Front. Postgate’s descriptive writing is first-class, with the ability to conjure an atmosphere or a scene or a character so that they feel entirely real. Some of the characterisation is brilliant, creating people we feel sorry for, or hate, or despise.

I don’t want to say too much about the individual stories, since the joy is in seeing them develop, so I’ll try to give just a brief idea of them. The first tells of a young man who gets a girl pregnant – this at a time when such a thing was still scandalous and when abortion was illegal. He’s a deeply unpleasant character, but Postgate makes the study of his psychology compelling. This is a dark and disturbing story, and very well told. As is the next one, which tells the story of a Corporal in the Home Guard. Postgate takes us through his life story, and uses it to look bitterly at the class divisions of Britain between the wars. Postgate was himself a socialist, and his political leanings show through clearly here. It’s a story of a fall and a redemption, and paints a frightening picture of wartime London in the blackout, with the constant threat of bombing. I was totally involved in the Corporal’s story and so hoped it might have a happy ending…

Next we are taken into the world of Nazi Germany as we witness the attempt to smuggle a man out of Berlin. This is a great short story, utterly absorbing in its depiction of Berlin in 1938 as a place of growing fear and suspicion, followed by the extreme tension of the journey. It also provides a look at the way German refugees were treated in Britain during the war, often feared as being part of the Fifth Column, resulting in them being objects of suspicion and resentment and in strict curtailment of their liberties. Fabulous stuff that had me on the edge of my seat! I so hoped it might have a happy ending…

Unfortunately the final story isn’t up to the same standard. It tells at too great length of a somewhat mundane love affair between two people who each failed to get my sympathy. The man works for a publisher, so Postgate takes the chance to include a lot of self-indulgent stuff about writers and publishing – a subject that is endlessly fascinating to some writers but perhaps less so to many readers. However, even here Postgate lifts an unremarkable episode by taking our lovers to Paris just before the occupation, and shows his usual skill in drawing a fascinating picture of a place at a particular point in time.

Raymond Postgate

This last section did undoubtedly pull the book down for me, and I intended to give it four stars. However, writing the review has reminded me just how good the other stories are, and they more than made up for my mild disappointment with the lovers. The main story is actually somewhat secondary to the suspects’ own stories, but Postgate wraps it up well. The overall effect is dark and rather bleak, and as a result suits its wartime setting perfectly. Postgate has been a real find for me through the British Library Crime Classics. I get the impression he didn’t write a huge number of crime novels, but I do hope they manage to find at least one or two more. And I highly recommend this one for the quality of the stories within the story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, the British Library and Poisoned Pen Press (for the Kindle version).

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38 thoughts on “Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

    • I’m really loving this series – they can be variable, but I seem to have hit a run of excellent ones at the moment. I warn you though – they can become addictive… 😉

  1. That’s a really interesting way to tell a story, FictionFan: through a group of linked short stories. It does mean that, as you found, they may not all be equally well-written, but points for innovation! And the context sounds compelling, too, what with the war going on, the blackouts, etc… I can see why you liked this so well.

    • I love the idea too and he carries it off so well. It’s a pity he seems not to have been terribly prolific, at least in detective fiction. I must check if any of his other stuff is available anywhere. Another real find from the BL!

    • These BL Crime Classics can be variable but recently I seem to have been on a run of really excellent ones. I’d never heard of him either till the BL reissued a couple of his books – another one that I can’t understand why he’s been “forgotten”.

  2. Another fine way to start off the week, FF! I don’t recall reading this one, but I’m definitely intrigued. I read one of Elly Griffiths’ books that mentioned the Fifth Column (something we didn’t study in History class, of course); perhaps I should remedy my lack of education!!

  3. Another great review of an old favourite. I think I must have read these as library books: otherwise, I’m sure I would have force-fed them to you!

  4. I enjoyed Verdict of Twelve, so I think I’ll have to try this one too. It must be good if you still gave it five stars despite being disappointed with the last section!

    • If you liked Verdict, I’m sure you’ll like this one too. Yes, it was only as I was writing the review I realised that I shouldn’t let my disappointment with that last section make me downgrade a book that I’d loved the majority of!

    • Oh, good – hope you enjoy it! It gave such an authentic-seeming picture of different aspects of wartime life, without being directly related to the war. He’s a great writer – I wish he’d been more prolific.

    • I’m not sure – I’ve loved a couple of the more humorous ones too… and hated others! But this and his other one, Verdict of Twelve, are both dark and have been two of the standouts for me.

    • Tut! That’s just not good enough – you must write them a letter of complaint! I love the short story collections, though for some reason I missed that one. I’ll maybe try to get hold of it this year… unless they bring out a new one… 😀

  5. At first it sounded like this book was some kind of cousin to Murder on the Orient Express because it’s a bunch of suspects on a train. But the fact that the stories are given by the characters themselves and aren’t totally driven by the detective sure would make it different. Obviously, Poirot is in every scene in Murder on the Orient Express and drives the story. In your review, you don’t mention Inspector Holly much at all.

    • Holly’s not in it much. It’s much more about the suspects’ stories than the actual detection of the crime. That’s what I like about these old crime novels – they weren’t as formulaic as current crime writing.

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