Noel Ross wasn’t exactly looking forward to his hotel/recuperation at the Hotel Magnificent on the South Coast. For a start, it wasn’t much of a hotel with only a handful of fairly unlikeable fellow guests. But it was doctor’s orders and he soon finds something to occupy him – a possible attempted murder.
One of the guests is found near to death in their room – everything points to a heart condition, but Noel suspects foul play, despite having no evidence for this. But when the guest collapses again and this time dies, after telling Noel that he smelled chloroform as he recovered from his previous attack, Noel is convinced that a murderer is afoot. Why else would Inspector Cheviot Burmann of Scotland Yard have just checked in?
Belton Cobb wrote fifty three detective novels between 1936 and 1971, with his primary sleuth being Inspector Burmann, but he dabbled with other police sleuths as well – looking at the titles, this isn’t the first appearance of Ross either, as he features in the title of an earlier book (very mild spoiler there, possibly). Allegedly, his best works are his earlier ones – hard to say, as his early books are difficult and expensive to find. He also managed to annoy John Dickson Carr with the following pronouncement on mystery fiction:
“Authors are well advised to include the murderer prominently in the first chapter so that he will be chosen by as many of those readers (38%) as possible; then, when they have finished the book, they will go about telling their friends how clever they were, thus advertising the book.”
Where the hell does 38% come from? Oh, and surely you want to fool everyone? How does “read this book, I spotted the murderer on page one” help sell a book? But enough of his thoughts on publicity, what about this book? I picked it as another of my attempts to scout out another author for Dean Street Press and, apart from the rampant unavailability, I thought this has a lot more promise than poor old B G Quin.
This is his twelfth book, the first after a four year break due to the war. The title stems from the fact that the book is split into six sections – sections 1, 3 and 5 are narrated by Noel Ross and cover his theories on the case, while the others are in the third person and cover Inspector Burmann, although there is some overlap. There’s some nice information as the book progresses concerning Noel Ross’s background and why he throws himself into the investigation – and why he takes a different approach to Burmann. It’s an interesting structure and the book trundles along nicely, looking at motives and opportunity before Burmann or Ross unmasks the murderer.
There’s some cleverness on display here, although the motive does come in an expositional dump at the end of the book – if the reader is going to solve this themselves, then they need to figure out how the poisoning was done and who had the opportunity to do it.
The description of post war England is well done – one plot line involving “coupon smuggling” and the opening description of the hotel still having barbed wire on it to repel the invaders combines with the general rundown nature of the seaside tourism industry – they didn’t really want visitors on the South Coast from 1939 to 1945 – to paint a bleak picture. Noel Ross’s situation, which I won’t go into, also harks back to the war, but this slice of realism doesn’t detract from what is an enjoyable murder mystery. I’ll definitely be coming back to Cobb in the future…
A warning though – this isn’t a long book, at least my copy isn’t – but Cobb was an author who was reprinted more than once in the Cherry Tree Books series, a series that tended to abridge the books severely. Not convinced, presuming my copy isn’t abridged, that it would need anything cut to make the 95 page small print format, but you might not be getting the complete book if you bought that copy. But the original (if it is such) is only 168 pages long, so who knows…