Fatal Dose (1937) by Belton Cobb

“What a chap you are, Burmann, with all of these marvellous reconstructions! All of ‘em frightfully ingenious and all of ’em completely wrong.”

Detective Inspector Cheviot Burmann was heading off on holiday to the seaside resort of Barling-On-Sea, looking for a break from solving crime after cracking several tricky cases recently. Basic manners cause him to pop in to see Superintendent Billy Brett, who he had worked with before on a previous case, but that may have been a mistake. Brett can’t resist telling him of an odd case – a local pharmacist’s bottle of strychnine disappeared, only to reappear a day later in the bin of the premises. Apparently untouched, the chemist checked it carefully, only to find that a lethal quantity of the drug had been replaced with Epsom salts.

Burmann still isn’t convinced that he needs to get involved, curious though he may be, until he discovers that the pharmacy happens to be downstairs from the guest house he is staying in. And when murder does strike, there’s a slight problem. The killer had to be one of the household – and every single one of them has a cast iron alibi for the crime…

My third Belton Cobb title, following the enjoyable Double Detection and Corpse At Casablanca, and while I’m still testing the water with the author, I’m enjoying his work more and more. Curtis Evans, one of my go-to sources for recommendations, does tell me that his later work tails off badly, hence this book, Cobb’s third title*. His early work seems pretty rare, so I was pretty pleased to get this.

It begins very well. The guest house has an interesting array of inhabitants – the pharmacists, a love triangle of regular visitors, a hen-pecked husband and his disabled (or is she?) wife and the staff, some of whom are entangled with the rest. There’s no indication in the first third as to who is going to die, so when the poisoned grapefruit gives us our victim, it’s as if we have a solution to the first puzzle – well, guessing game – for the reader.

“I suppose that this is going to be like all alibi cases. You start by finding out everyone has a water-tight one. Then you find holes in them all, and in the end you’re back where you started.”

The middle third is fine, but does seem to drag, as alibi-busters often do. Cobb’s writing does help keep the attention, but he struggles to present motive for many of the suspects and I can’t see many people looking outside of three or four characters for the murderer. Burmann’s method of finding a theory and then having it proved wrong – this is common in all the books I’ve read so far – is fun. You just know that when Burmann presents your theory as his latest idea, and there’s more than twenty pages to go, then you better start rethinking it.

But… the original blurb reads as follows –

“The surprising solution of this case escaped him [Burmann] for several days because he failed to make the right deduction from an incident which he witnessed on the day of the crime. Readers of this book are given the same opportunity that he had, and no doubt those who are especially careful and intelligent will avoid his mistake.”

That’s actually quite a claim – the perfect clue that if you spot it will tell you who the murderer was. But you know what? The blurb is absolutely right (for once). A perfect clue that the reader will, to be honest, miss completely but when it is explained in the denouement, you will kick yourself that you missed it. Thunderingly obvious to readers of detective fiction but you’ll miss it all the same.

So an entertaining beginning, a very clever and fairly clued mystery that does drag a little in the middle, if I’m honest. I’d recommend it, but good luck finding a copy that won’t break the bank.

Oh, and if you do decide to hunt down your own Cobb to give him a try, be careful as he wrote a lot of true crime stuff as well. Most of the cheap(ish) books out there aren’t his mystery novels or are the later titles.

*My next Cobb excursion will be one of those later books, by the way. How bad can a book called “The Horrible Man In Heron’s Wood” be, after all?

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