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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Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

According to the evidence…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A trial is about to commence and the jury is being sworn in. A death has occurred in unusual circumstances and a woman has been charged with murder. But the evidence is largely circumstantial so it will be up to the jury (and the reader) to decide whether the prosecution has proved its case…

The book has an unusual format, almost like three separate acts. As each jury member is called to take the oath, we are given background information on them; sometimes a simple character sketch, at others what amounts to a short story telling of events in their lives that have made them what they are. These introductions take up more than a third of the book before we even find out who has been murdered and who is on trial. When the trial begins, the reader is whisked out of the courtroom to see the crime unfold. Finally we see the evidence as it is presented at the trial and then follow the jury members as they deliberate. Despite this odd structure, I found it completely absorbing – each section is excellent in itself and together they provide a fascinating picture of how people’s own experiences affect their judgement of others.

In that sense, it’s almost like a precursor to Twelve Angry Men, although the comparison can’t be taken too far – in this one, we spend more time out of the jury-room than in, and the crime is entirely different. But we do get that same feeling of the jurors having only the limited information presented to them on which to form their judgement, and of seeing how their impressions of the various lawyers and witnesses affect their decisions. And we also see how, once in the jury room, some jurors take the lead in the discussions and gradually bring others round to agree with their opinion – a rather cynical portrayal of how the evidence might be distorted in either direction by people with strong prejudices of their own.

Challenge details:
Book: 65
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1940

What I found so interesting about the first section is that Postgate uses his jury members to give a kind of microcosm of society of the time, The book was first published in 1940, but feels as if it’s set a couple of years before WW2 begins. Instead, the war that is mostly referred to is WW1, showing how the impact of that conflict is still affecting lives a couple of decades later. Postgate also addresses some of the issues of the day, lightly for the most part, though he does get a little polemical about the dangerous growth of anti-Semitism in British society – very forgivably considering the time of writing. A jury is an excellent device to bring a group of people together who would be unlikely to cross paths in the normal course of things – here we have a university professor, a travelling salesman, a domestic servant, a pub landlord, etc., all building up to an insightful look at the class structures within society. But we also see their interior lives – what has formed their characters: success, failure, love and love lost, greed, religious fervour.

I was also surprised at some of the subjects Postgate covered. One of the jurors allows him to give a rather more sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality than I’d have expected for the time. Another juror has clearly been used and abused by older men in his youth and has learned the art of manipulation and blackmail as a result – again in a very short space Postgate gives enough information for us to understand even if we can’t completely empathise with the character. There is the woman whose character was formed early by her hideous parents and a state that was more concerned with making her a valuable worker than a decent person. Each character is entirely credible and, knowing their background means we understand how they come to their individual decisions in the jury room.

Raymond Postgate

The crime itself is also done very well. I’ve not given any details of it because part of the success of the story comes from it only slowly becoming obvious who is to be the victim and who the accused. It’s a dark story with some genuinely disturbing elements, but it’s lifted by occasional touches of humour. Again characterisation is key, and Postgate provides enough background for the people involved for us to feel that their actions, however extreme, are quite plausible in the context. After the trial, there is a short epilogue where we find out if the jury, and we, got it right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this – excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. Easy to see why it’s considered a classic – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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