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.’


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.