Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

A dying fall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two thousand people have packed into Maningpool Civic Hall for a performance by the Municipal Orchestra of a Strauss tone poem. Halfway through, the conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, seems to gesticulate even more wildly than is his wont just before he pitches head-first off the podium into the orchestra. Landing on his head probably didn’t help, but it transpires it was a bullet that killed him. And since he was shot in the front it seems that it must have been one of the orchestra who did the deed. Inspector Alan Hope of the Yard is in the area visiting friends, so is quickly put in charge of the investigation. But where to begin? It appears Sir Noel was roundly disliked by almost everyone who had anything to do with him, so anyone from the Piccolo to the Kettle-Drum could have had a motive. And despite there being two thousand eye witnesses, it seems no one saw anything…

Well, this is a unique little puzzle! It’s told almost entirely through letters from Inspector Hope to his wife, Julia, in which he encloses copies of lots of documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings, lots of statements from the orchestra members, a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of Sir Noel’s demise! It’s from these documents that Alan hopes to find the clues that will identify the killer, with any help that his more musically minded wife can give him.

The denouement is probably the least successful part of the book, so I’ll mention it first. After being baffled for weeks, Alan suddenly leaps to the correct solution out of nowhere. In retrospect it is technically fair-play, in that the reader has all the same information as Alan, but I’d be amazed if anyone was able to make the necessary connections to have a shot at solving it. The main weakness, though, is that the format means the reader hasn’t ever “met” any of the suspects and there are a lot – a lot! – of them, most of whom never become more than names, and in fact are often referred to as the instrument they play – the 1st Clarinet, etc. So when Alan finally reveals the culprit, my first response was “Who’s that?” However, Alan then reveals what brought him to this conclusion and all becomes clear before the end.

Challenge details:
Book: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941

For me, this weakness was well outweighed by the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues. I’m no expert in classical music – far from it – but I found it helped that I basically know how the instruments are usually positioned in an orchestra, and the musical vocabulary wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. Alan does explain as it goes along, but I think it might be quite a tedious read for someone with no interest at all in orchestral music. But for anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge, like me, it’s a lot of fun checking back to the chart of the orchestra whenever Alan is discussing who could have done the deed, and trying to use the score to see which orchestra members could have stopped playing for a few moments – just long enough to pull out a gun, fire and get rid of the weapon – without the audience noticing. I paused fairly early on in the proceedings to go to youtube and listen to the piece in question – Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life – and while that certainly isn’t necessary, it again all added to the fun and meant I knew what Alan was talking about when he mentions various passages as more suitable than others for covering up a bit of skulduggery.

Eric Walter Blom
(Sebastian Farr)
National Portrait Gallery

Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, and this was his only novel. He worked as a music critic for some of the top newspapers, and in the book we hear from the two local critics from the town’s rival newspapers, locked in a bitter battle of sarcasm over each other’s musical knowledge or lack thereof. One of them, Ransom, was also feuding with Sir Noel, who didn’t appreciate any form of criticism of his musical genius. All three had taken to insulting each other in the letters pages and music review sections of the papers, and I found these sections highly entertaining.

Definitely an oddity, this one, and I can quite see why it’s attracting a few pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. But its quirkiness appealed to me, I loved all the musical stuff and it’s very well written, so despite the reveal-from-nowhere issue I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I love when the BL concentrate on the stars they’ve brought back to prominence, like Lorac and Bellairs, but there’s plenty of room in the series for the occasional more eccentric novel like this one, too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link

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British Library Crime Classics Subscription

The British Library have now set up a subscription service for the Crime Classics series, which you can use to buy the books for yourself (highly recommended) or to gift to some else (if you really feel you must). Here’s the link where you can find out more:

https://shop.bl.uk/collections/crime-classics/products/british-library-crime-classics-subscription

I was delighted to be given a subscription by the BL to replace the review copies I normally get. I found it easy to set up and they were efficient in emailing me confirmation of the subscription. I’ve now received my first book, which came well wrapped and had the extra treat enclosed of a book-mark matching the gorgeous book cover! Don’t know if that’ll be the case every month, but I have my fingers crossed. 🤞 I also live in hope of a similar subscription service for their Tales of the Weird series one day… are you listening, BL?

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46 thoughts on “Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

  1. Oh, this does sound like fun, FictionFan! I’m absolutely no expert in orchestral music, but I know just a little, and I can see how it’s be an interesting challenge to try to work out who’d have done this deed. It’s audacious, too – right in front of everyone! I know what you mean about sudden insights and solutions that aren’t arrived at step by step. But this does sound like a good read. I’ll end on that note… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • In this case a little knowledge is just enough to make all the musical stuff entertaining rather than frustrating! I still have my doubts that all of the two thousand witnesses were so enthralled by the music that they missed a gunshot – I must try it out next time I attend a concert… 😉 It’s fun when they include one of these quirkier novels now and again – keeps the series feeling fresh.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, a great Christmas gift idea for vintage crime fans! I’m interested to see if there’s a matching bookmark every month – fun!
      I hope I haven’t put anyone off this one – honestly, my musical knowledge could best be described as minimal, so if I could follow it almost anyone could! But I did find that my little knowledge made it more entertaining. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, my own reading tastes change all the time! It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been reading vintage mysteries but I’m loving them at the moment. And this was certainly one of the quirkier ones! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Given that “minimal” would be exaggerating my musical knowledge, I reckon anyone who knows that piccolos and kettle-drums sound different would get on fine with this! 🎵 The subscription is very tempting, and since my first one included a bookmark and another little extra related to the book I’m intrigued to see if that’s always going to be the case. These simple things appeal to my simple mind… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Please don’t be put off by the musical aspect. My own musical knowledge could best be described as ‘minimal’, so if I coped I’m sure you would too. And the orchestral chart is included, which helps make sense of where all the suspects were in relation to the victim! Definitely one of the quirkier books in the series, but I found it fun! 😀

      Like

  2. The subscription is tempting, what a good idea and I love your montage! This one does sound different but certainly worth giving a go, I like the idea of listening to the piece of music, that’s an added dimension and the chart is an added bonus!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The subscription is a great idea, especially as a gift for a vintage crime lover, I think! Ah, I’d love to take the credit, but it’s the BL’s own montage – love all those covers! I was glad the author used a real piece of music rather than inventing one because I thoroughly enjoyed being able to watch a real orchestra play it on youtube – helped me to visualise (audiolise?) the discussion in the book. Especially when the critics started criticising it… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t know much about classic orchestration and the instruments that make up an orchestra. So if he explains what’s going on, that’s fine by me. The mystery sounds really intriguing, though it comes out of nowhere. I’m glad you found this entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You really don’t have to have much knowledge, if any, but I found that my basic understanding of how an orchestra is usually laid out added to the entertainment – I could visualise it better. An odd one, for sure, but sometimes that kind of quirkiness works!

      Like

  4. You liked this one a lot better than I did, apparently. Although I caught on to a few of the musical clues right away and thought it was an original idea, I just didn’t believe in the details of this book. I thought no inspector would tell everything about an open case to his wife, especially in letters, and I thought it was ridiculous that they didn’t interview the orchestra members right away and let them just submit little letters. It didn’t seem to me that Farr knew very much about police procedure, and there was way too much emphasis on the puzzle solving and no character development.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, now I wish it had been! That would have been so dramatic even the apparently blind audience must have spotted something! 😉
      Yes, indeed! I’m excited at the thought that there might be a matching bookmark in every book! These simple things please my simple mind… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Despite its weaknesses this sounds right up my street – I love anything epistolary and will read way outside my normal comfort zone for epistolary fiction, so the idea of a vintage murder mystery in that format makes me very happy! And I have very little knowledge of classical music, but I like it and listen to quite a lot of it, so hopefully my tiny bit of knowledge will be enough to see me through the musical bits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, this is entirely epistolary if you include the press clippings and so on that he sent along with his letters. I only know a very little about classical music too as a listener, so I’m sure your little knowledge will be plenty! It’s definitely getting very divided reactions so it’s clearly one of these books that depends totally on the subjective reaction of each reader – if you do get to it, I hope you’re one of the readers it works for! I did enjoy the battle of the music critics… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hah, it doesn’t help that I read this review a couple of hours after conducting a rehearsal of some Vaughan Williams choral pieces with orchestra and an hour or two before the actual performance! Luckily – I hope! – I’m not as disliked as this conductor seems to be, so it’s possible I might find this a bit of light relief!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, sorry about the timing but I’m quite sure you’re more popular than Sir Noel! And I do hope if there are any music critics in the audience they’ll be considerably less embittered and sarcastic than the ones in this! 😉 Your musical background might make this even more fun for you – being a professional musicologist himself, I assume the author hasn’t made any glaring musical faux-pas, though I wouldn’t have noticed if he did. And you’d actually be able to read the score!!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Despite all the negatives you mention, it does sound like a fun, quirky murder mystery! I think it’s worth adding to my wishlist, even if it never makes the TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The musical stuff is fun, especially the battle of the music critics! It is dividing opinion though – as many people seem to be hating it as loving it. If your husband does decide to go for it, I hope he falls into the “love” category!

      Like

    • Hahaha, that’s my idea of the perfect gift! 😂 I love that they keep bringing back their most popular authors, like ECR Lorac, but it’s always fun when they give us something quirky like this for a change. They don’t always work for me, but I still enjoy seeing the different styles within the genre. And I found all the musical stuff in this one highly entertaining!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m glad you liked this one, FF — I thought it sounded intriguing from the first time you mentioned it here, and I’m pleased to learn it met your expectations, even the quirky solution! I think I’d like it, too. Hm, free bookmark? Somebody’s certainly up on their marketing skills!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes quirkiness works for me and sometimes not, but the musical clues in this one entertained me highly! Haha, I love the idea of a free matching bookmark – these simple things please my simple mind… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • The subscription would be a great gift for a hard-to-buy for vintage crime fan! I’m no musical expert either, but my tiny bit of knowledge was just enough to make the musical clues fun rather than frustrating! Definitely a quirky one!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh now that’s a perfect little gift, that subscription series. Christmas has come early to the FF house! I love the sounds of this book too, the idea of someone from the orchestra murdering him is so deliciously clever.

    Liked by 1 person

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