Lights! Camera! Action! Monica Stanton, the daughter of a village vicar has come to Pineham Studios near Watford to start a screenwriting job with Albion Studios. She is rather disappointed to discover when she gets there, however, she isn’t going to be working on Desire, the racy novel that got her the job, but on the film script for William Cartwright’s new detective story, And So To Murder, while Cartwright works on the script for her book. Obviously, the two writers take an instant dislike to each other. And anyone who’s read a John Dickson Carr novel know where that’s going…
But before Monica’s love-life can be sorted out, two slight hiccups get in the way. First of all, the second World War breaks out. And secondly, someone seems to be trying to murder Monica. Luckily, Cartwright knows Inspector Humphrey Masters. And even more luckily, Inspector Masters knows Sir Henry Merrivale.
I was rather surprised when JJ recently gave a positive review to this one. It’s been an age since I read it, but I remembered it very differently as a massive disappointment. And in a way it is, if you read it directly after The Judas Window and The Reader Is Warned. If you go in expecting classic locked room shenanigans, then you are going to be disappointed. But if you go in without any expectations, well, it’s a different story…
On second reading, I think this is rather marvellous. It’s genuinely funny in places – the attempts of the studio to film the Battle of Waterloo when all of the extras have been called up, for example – and while the love story is hardly the most subtle one – it rather resembles the pair in The Case Of The Constant Suicides (and at least they’re not cousins in this one) – it’s all rather charming.
The mystery is intriguing as well. The rationale for the attempted murder of Monica is clever (if, again, a little unbelievable) and there is a little impossibility to ponder, although it does appear too late for me to detail. Is there a cheat in the narrative to help hide the villain? Well, sort of. But it is justified, and it’s nowhere near as bad as the one in… well, spoilers, another Henry Merrivale tale. And speaking of H.M., while his appearance is brief (although not as brief as the cameo from Ken Blake, the hero of earlier H.M. adventures), he’s on fine form.
As for the war – as this fits into my Do Mention The War series of reviews – it permeates through the story. The studio is making anti-Nazi films before the outbreak of hostilities, there’s some funny business with a blackout curtain and, as I mentioned, the war breaks out in the middle of the tale.
“Before a fortnight had elapsed, there was a new noise in the earth. The dozenth pledge was broken, the grey mass burst loose; over London the sirens roared as the Prime Minister finished speaking; the great concrete hats of the Maginot Line revolved and looked towards the west; Poland died, with all her guns still ablaze; the nights of the black-outs came; and, at Pineham, a small spot in England, a patient murderer struck again at Monica Stanton.”
Rather a lovely bit of prose in a rather lovely book. Slightly to my surprise before re-reading it, this is Highly Recommended.