Eustace Peters had retired from the Consular Service and taken a house in Long Wilton, the parish of which our narrator, Robert Driver, is rector. The two men had become friends, so Driver is shocked and saddened when Peters is found dead in his bed – murdered! The evening before Driver had spent the evening with Peters and some other guests: Callaghan, Thalberg and Vane-Cartwright, each of whom had been known to Peters from different contexts. Footprints in the snow suggest, though, that the murderer had come from outside the house, so suspicion falls first on the gardener who had been overheard threatening that he’d like to kill his employer. It is soon shown he could not have been the guilty man, however, so the other three men are elevated to the position of suspects. For some unexplained reason, the police seem to leave it mostly up to the rector to investigate.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of the books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, but occasionally I come across one that baffles me utterly – not because of the mystery, but because the book is so bad I can’t understand why it is included. This is one of those. The writing is dull, plodding and repetitive, and the plot, such as it is, is stretched out far too thinly over a whole year, which coincidentally is how much I felt I aged while reading it.
There’s no real mystery. The rector happens on clues, stories and documents by chance and coincidence, which lead him to know who the murderer was and why. But does the book stop then? No, it meanders on and on, trying and failing to build a sense of tension. The story goes out to the mysterious colonial Far East and off to Italy, but the author chooses not to take the reader with it. Instead we stay in England, guests of the rector, the most insistent bore since the Ancient Mariner. We hear about all these possibly exciting events in far-flung places second-hand, through stories people tell the rector or letters they send him.
At the end, Benson treats us to excuses for all the plot holes and a kind of mass filling in of all the gaps in such a clumsy, amateurish way that I might have found it unintentionally hilarious had my brain not ceased to function several hours earlier. I could only assume he’d read back over his manuscript at the end, made a note of all the things that didn’t quite makes sense and, instead of going back and correcting them, simply tried to explain them away…
In particular, tardy attention had been paid to the report of the young constable who, as I mentioned [250 pages ago!], followed Sergeant Speke into Peters’ room, and who had incurred some blame because his apparent slowness had allowed some trespassers to come and make footprints on the lawn (I fancy his notes had been overlooked when some officer in charge of the case had been superseded by another).
Apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. For me, this was already one too many.
I downloaded this one from manybooks.com, but take my advice – don’t.