Francis Duncan: So Pretty A Problem (1950)

A sharp sound wakes Mordecai Tremaine from his deck chair dozing. Helen Carthallow runs from her secluded house to the beach side, finding Tremaine she cries out: ‘Please. Come Quickly. Please. I’ve killed my husband.’

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The now deceased Adrian Carthallow lies in a horrible state in the middle of his study come library. Adrian was the controversial painter of the day, his revealing portraits and horrific landscapes, while being classed as genius, stirred up many a critic and enemy.

Helen claims the shooting was a joke gone wrong, she didn’t realise the gun was loaded. But the scene and her account paint an odd picture. However, if she didn’t kill Adrian then it paints an odder picture still, as the house known as Paradise sits on a small piece of cliff top broken away from the mainland, only accessible by a small iron bridge. The house and bridge were watched by a rock solid witness, and no one else but Adrian, Helen and Tremaine crossed over around the time the gun was fired. How then could a killer enter and leave Paradise unseen?

I was introduced to Duncan’s works by TomCat in his recent reviews  and was fortunate to come across this one on my London second hand bookshop walk. So Pretty a Problem is one of a series of five classic detective novels from the 1950’s penned by Francis Duncan and reissued by Penguin last year under their Vintage label. It’s also the impossible crime of the series so of course I jumped at it. Set in the coastal town of Falporth, Duncan’s series detective the retired tobacconist, hopelessly old school romantic and amateur criminologist, Mordecai Tremaine is trying to take a holiday with no murder involved. Alas, he is struck with the impossible problem, and his reputation for solving crimes precedes him, as he is enlisted by the local police force to help break down the complexities of motive, means and opportunity that muddy the case.

The book is divided into three distinct acts: Part one Query: At the Time of the Corpse, dives in with the impossible situation and introduces our cast. Part 2 Background: Before the Corpse then takes us back in time to Tremaine’s first encounter with Adrian and Helen Carthallow at a party and onto the subsequent meetings of each of our motley crew of suspects with all the bubbling tensions between them. Part 2 ends bang up to date as the gun is fired, taking us into part three Exposition: Following the Corpse. A really interesting way to approach a detective novel and one that I hadn’t seen done before, (I’d love to hear of more examples from readers), but one that ultimately makes this book a difficult read, as I will expand on in just a moment.

Another strength is how many strands Duncan manages to hold together around this murder. The impossible solution isn’t super original or exciting, although plausible (and as TomCat noted there are some very late clues), but the psychological manipulations and subsequent confusion of motives, particularly on Helen’s account, are really interesting and how they weave into the final solution is super satisfying. The denouement itself shows off Duncan’s plotting ability, and the pace of the reveal was one I wish he would have kept up through the rest of the book, which brings me too…

The criticisms, and unfortunately there are a few. Firstly, there is what I would call the definitive problem in any type of writing, but that poor detective stories particularly fall foul of: telling not showing. For Francis this occurs very often and in a particularly unfortunate way. Take this passage from part one for example, with Helen as the main dialogue, emphasis mine:

“…you’re quite sure he didn’t kill himself?”

“Of course,” she said. Her voice rose, There was a shrillness in it. “Of course. I’ve told you how it happened. I’ve told the police. I shot him. Adrian gave me his gun and I pointed it at him and fired. That’s what he told me to do. He must have forgotten it was loaded…”

She broke off suddenly. She stared up at Haldean and there was in her face the incredulous look of a person who had just become aware of a new and altogether unexpected possibility.

“You mean,” she whispered, “you mean that perhaps he hadn’t forgotten? That he wanted me to kill him?”

Haldean did not make any comment. Roberta Fairham was leaning forward in her chair, her lips slightly parted. It was as though she was desperately anxious not to miss what Helen Carthallow might be going to say.

Duncan continually does this, shows us a change in mood or character, and then tells us that is what we have just seen, or that is what we are supposed to notice. In this passage the suggestion of suicide is there from the off, and then Helen breaks her sentence, clearly in realisation. But then Duncan tells us ‘she has just broken off her sentence in realisation and her face has the expression of said realisation’. And then with Roberta, leaning forward on the edge of her chair, with lips parted – clearly from that description of her posture and face, waiting to hear what Helen is going to say next – Duncan tells us that she is waiting to hear what Helen will say next.

This may sound like a subtle observation but after this happens between almost every line of dialogue it makes you want to throw the book across the room, and breaks the natural flow of the narrative. It felt that he was writing from a place of anxiety, as if he was worried the audience may not get the characters or remember the clues. This therefore undermines the intelligence of the reader. What this book needed was a good editor, to bring the confidence of part 3 to the rest of the book.

Leading on from this is the frustrating use of the three part structure. This could have been so brilliant, original and striking, but for similar writing problems, it isn’t. Part two, taking us back into the past, ends up lasting over 100 pages and is just pleasant writing with very little in terms of events. There is one deliciously dark moment involving the cast surfboarding together, which Duncan then ruins by literally writing ‘Had it been an accident?’ again telling you what is obviously the whole point of the scene. If part two could have been cut down by 70 pages, gotten straight to the point with the bubbling tensions (with some actual tensions) and then dived into act three, it would have been immensely satisfying. But as it is I was forced to drag myself through the section at a snail’s pace, a section which also contains absolutely no detection of any kind.

So Pretty a Problem is worth a go for the joys it holds, but be prepared for it to drag. I would love to see an experiment taken up for someone to read only parts one and three, and to see if it actually made any difference to the book.

A Treasure Trove of a Book Shop (a recommendation)

If you live in London or passing through in the next few months, then there is a place you definitely need to put on your ‘to visit’ list.

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As most of you know I am a frequenter of second hand book shops. And to my joy I found that Halcyon books in Greenwich, south London is moving premises. Why is that a case for joy? Well, this means that they are selling off all of their incredibly large selection of books from their basement stock for one pound each!

As it’s a massive sell all festival inside there isn’t much order to anything (which adds to the fun of being there). However the woman in the shop at the time told me that on the left as you enter they have tried to stock most of the selection of vintage crime that they have just brought in. She also told me that the their new premises have got a good selection of their best vintage crime, and now have a cafe. What more could you want?

On my last rummage through the old premises I found The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr (penguin edition) and nice copies of The Poison Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley, Cue for Murder by Helen McCloy (oh for it to have been a copy of Splitfoot!), The Door Between by Ellery Queen, Buried For Pleasure by Edmund Crispin and an old school book on magic tricks, all of which I hadn’t read. I even saw a french edition of The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux.

But you need to be quick, as they only have the building for a few more months.

Just a quick post from me today (and yes it’s totally London centric)  but hope it’s of some use to you. Or if not that the whimsical images of overflowing books brightens the day.

My Top 5 Second Hand Bookshops in London

Put on some comfortable shoes, grab a decent sized bag and a pocket full of change because here is a walking tour of my Top 5 second hand book shops in central London.

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Each store on this walk is on and around the wonder of Charing Cross Road. An area that combines enigmatic buildings you will never enter because you don’t have enough money, back alleys you will never enter because they are too terrifying and shops you will never enter because you didn’t go in the first time and now you’ll never find them again. Charing Cross road and it’s subsequent attachments contain some of the most densely packed areas of books shops in London, some new, some second hand, some antique, some mad. I have chosen my favourite in the second hand and vintage variety, and of course, as this blog specialises in, the best places to pick up a great second hand mystery book at a great price.

The book walk begins at Leicester Square Station and heads north, ending up at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, with each bookshop close to the last on a winding literary road. It is a great walk to go on anytime, but my book hunt tends to be on the first Tuesday of each month, just after 2 o’clock. The reason for which will become apparent further down this post.

Let’s begin:

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1: Any Amount of Books

56 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0QA

Starting at Leicester Square tube station head north on Charing Cross and it won’t be more than a few strides before you hit a huge row of book shops with titles pouring out the doors. The first along this row, (and the reason I start this tour here) is Any Amount of Books.

This is simply my favourite second hand book shop in London. The store is split over two levels with a sprawling paradise of first editions, vintage and second hand books stacked all over. The shelves are brilliantly organised and most importantly, there is a large crime bookcase located at the very back of the basement floor. Make sure to grab a set of step ladders as treasures can be hiding in the heavens.

The shop is open 10:30-21:30 everyday and the staff are always excited and helpful which makes it a perfect visit anytime of day.

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2: Quinto and Francis Edwards

72 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0BE

Take a right out of Any Amount of Books, and a few doors down you will arrive at the second shop in our tour, Quinto and Francis Edwards. The Francis Edwards part of the name refers to the first floor of the shop, containing the esoteric, the rare, the first edition and the estates of the famous-now-deceased. The Quinto part of the name is what we want, and is also the reason that I start my books hunt just before 2 O’clock. Quinto is the second hand basement part of the store, and boasts a huge selection of fantasy, history, poetry, literary theory and at the right time, vintage crime. On the first Tuesday of every month, the shop closes to completely restock the Quinto basement with new acquisitions, reopening at 2 O’clock. If you arrive at the right time you can find some absolute gems.

There is sometimes a bit of a cue, so arrive early if you want to be in first! Or if you are not up for silent, awkward bustling for the best material, head down once the initial wave has died down. Quinto is also great for a visit anytime, and all sorts of things can come out of the woodwork when you spend time.

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3: Oxfam Bookstore Bloomsbury

12 Bloomsbury St, WC1B 3QA

A short walk past Tottenham Court Road Station with a sweeping right and left will bring you to the Oxfam Bookstore. If you follow this route, on the way you will also come across the wonderful mystery that is Little Compton Street. A secret street buried underground beneath Charing Cross road. If you look through the grates in the middle of the road, you can see the underground street sign. The Marmont Road Bespoke Detective Agency, a London based Detective agency that deal with the unsolved and the unexplained took the mysterious street on as a case at a client’s request: here.

But back to the tour. The Oxfam Bookstore on Bloomsbury is one of the bigger book shops of the Oxfam, second hand world, and is a real highlight of this journey. The shop is really well put together, with a great feel, and stocks a great selection of everything, with particularly good sections on gender and sexuality, social sciences and a brilliant art department. The crime bookshelf stocks a lot of modern crime fiction, with some vintage nestled in, but the real vintage crime is usually hidden on the antiquarian literature shelf close by. They also have a lovely Monday-Sunday bookshelf, with ideas for books for everyday of the week, and they often group titles together from the same writer around the shop and sell them as bundles with special offer price.

Now at this point on our journey, it is advisable to take a little break because the next section is going to be big! You could pop onto the wonderful London Review book shop (a non secondhand book shop!) and grab a coffee in their adjoining cafe. Now you have recharged a little, and rested your shoulders from your massive bag of books it’s time for the big one.

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4: Skoob Books

66 Marchmont St, WC1N 1AE

A walk across Bloomsbury Square park and past Russell Square tube station will bring you to Skoob Books. Snuck round the back of the 1960’s designed Brunswick centre Skoob books is the biggest second hand book shop in London. Across their 2000 sq ft of shelves they stock around 55,000 books, with 5000 being replaced each month (I’m not joking).

Their crime section is a beast, and they have the biggest selection of green Penguin Crime Classics I have ever seen (check the top image for proof). There are stools around to sit on as you browse, and the prices are good. They also do student discounts, and sometimes run 20-30% off weeks, so look out for that.

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5: Judd Books

82 Marchmont St, London WC1N 1AG

After the monster that is Skoob you need a little flourish to finish your book shop journey and just a few hundred meters up the same road you’ll find Judd Books ready and waiting.

Judd is another two floored paradise, with only a small crime section, but a few gems knocking around, including a few old Penguin crime books. They also have a lovely poetry section and I usually use this time in the journey to pick up a Faber and Faber book of a specific poet, and take in a little linguistic healing.

At this point, you are most definitely replete unless you are mad, and up for more, and therefore Camden will be your next stop to visit Black Gull Books. But normal people will be in need of food and hydration, and a few minutes round the corner from Judd is the amazing Wellcome Collection.

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The Wellcome Collection if you don’t know is a large scale, esoteric museum space, which has had amazing exhibitions on such diverse topics dirt, criminal forensics, sex, language and mental asylums. It also has an amazing book shop with new titles on popular science, psychology, philosophy, art and publications which accompany the show. Take a break in their cafe and grab something to eat, before taking in one of their exhibitions. And if you want to start reading some of your second hand finds straight away, you can head upstairs to their reading room for a bit of quiet and well designed peace. Website here.

Well that’s all folks. Maybe I’ll see you along the way at some point. You can find me crouched low or stretched high in the crime section, with a backpack of books, seeking out an unfound locked room mystery on my list.