Death of a sadist…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Bill Brent is disturbed in the middle of the night by what sounds like a scream coming from outside the window of the room below his. He rushes down and discovers the body of his host, Horace Manning, stabbed in the back as he sat at the desk in his study. Outside a storm rages, the storm that has forced a reluctant group of guests to spend the night in the house, and Bill finds the phones are down. Then when two of the younger guests offer to drive through the storm to fetch the police, they discover all the cars have been immobilised, with their tyres slashed and their tanks emptied. The guests must spend the next twenty-four hours in the house waiting for the storm to blow over, knowing that one among them is a murderer. We are then taken back twenty-four hours to meet all the characters, discover why they were in the house and learn that many, if not all, of them had good reason to want Manning dead…
Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction that sometimes books are forgotten for good reason, a sentiment with which I heartily concur. But I’m happy to also agree with him wholeheartedly that this is not one of those – this one fully deserves to be re-introduced to a new generation of readers. I can only assume it has been allowed to lapse into obscurity because it was the author’s only novel. Billie Houston was apparently one half of a very successful vaudeville act along with her sister Renée, in which Billie tended to play a boy to Renée’s girl. She wrote this novel backstage during performances. Unfortunately her stage career was cut short by illness, though she lived to a good age and in later life became a championship level chess-player. I’m also delighted that she and her talented sister, who had a much longer career that took her into the world of movies, hailed from my home town of Glasgow. I’ve spent far too much time in the last week looking both sisters up on the internet and searching for rare clips on youtube – again it’s surprising that two people who were big stars in their day now seem to be almost entirely forgotten, even here where they were presumably most famous.
Anyway, the book! It’s remarkably well written and, perhaps unsurprisingly from someone used to writing comedy sketches, there’s quite a lot of humour amidst the darkness. The characters are rather stock ones for the most part but nonetheless very well drawn, and most of them are likeable. The exception is the victim, who is a horrible sadist, and so we need not waste tears over him. In fact, one is only surprised that it took so long for someone to do the world a favour and do away with him! Horace Manning is a scientist, working on a deadly gas to be used as a weapon of war. He has only one child, his daughter Helen, and although he has never physically abused her he has ruled her by psychological terror – he reminded me of Mrs Boynton, Christie’s wonderful sadist in Appointment with Death.
Now Helen is in love and Tony Fane, her young man, has sought Manning’s approval for their engagement which, to everyone’s surprise and disbelief, he has given. He invites the whole group over for dinner – Helen and Tony, Tony’s parents, Tony’s sister Kay (whom I couldn’t help feeling was something of an alter-ego for the author), and a couple of assorted friends who were present at the Fanes – Bill Brent, who along with Kay plays the role of amateur ‘tec and hero, Teddy Fraser who is in love with Kay, and Dr Henderson – Hendy – who is an old friend of Manning and Helen. The servants also play their part in the story, more so than is often the case in Golden Age mysteries – Mrs Geraint, the sleep-walking housekeeper who also lives in terror of Manning and stays only out of love for Helen, the two maids, Alice and Mary, and Strange, the chauffeur,
But it is clear that Manning doesn’t intend to let Helen go as easily as that, so a feeling of impending doom hovers over the dinner table, while outside the storm that will trap them in the house approaches. And after dinner Manning does something so awful that everyone’s distrust of him turns to hatred, giving everyone a motive.
(Slight spoiler: this awful thing involves animal cruelty. It is a short episode and not too graphic, and despite my hatred of animal cruelty in books I was able to read on past it without feeling too upset. I think the fact that all the other characters had the same reaction of horror as I did made the author’s own opinion of it clear, and it is an important part of the plot. But be warned!)
I admit it becomes ridiculous in the last thirty pages or so, but by that time I was having far too much fun to care. I guessed early whodunit and why, and was proved right, but again didn’t mind. The characterisations are so enjoyable, from blustering Sir Anthony Fane to his long-suffering wife, constantly shocked by the very modern manners of her children, to the young people with their various romantic entanglements that all need to be worked out by the end. Kay is delightful, and Bill is true romantic hero material. The rest of the women spend an inordinate amount of time fainting and swooning and being told to lie down and have a nice cup of tea, but it all added to the fun! I am truly sorry that Houston never wrote another, but I’m very glad the British Library has given us all the opportunity to enjoy this one.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.