The cathedral city of Storminster is being plagued by a campaign of poison-pen letters, all typed on the same typewriter, all “signed” with a picture of the scales of justice. Some of the secrets that detailed in the letters are uncomfortably close to the truth – old scandals and crimes are threatened to be revealed, leading the Reverend Selwyn Sneddicombe to investigate, determined to find the writer to protect his parishioners. But his efforts soon become more serious when deaths occur – first of all, an apparent suicide, but the second incident is a clear case of murder.
The police soon have a suspect – Rodney Ashburn’s marriage to Rosalind was apparently in trouble and suspecting an affair with reporter John Archer, he shot Archer dead. An open and shut case – Rodney was witnessed at the scene of the crime. As the jury considers its verdict, Selwyn is determined to find the truth about the dark clouds gathering over Storminster.
There is a little bit of a buzz around the Golden Age readers at the moment about Clifford Witting, so, just to be contrary, I thought I’d look at an author who wrote a book (this one) that has the same title as one of his, and is just about as hard to collect. Cecil M Wills is an author new to me, and was recommended to me a while ago by Martin Edwards. He wrote twenty-six mystery novels between 1934 and 1961, with two series sleuths. This is one of his later books, and is a non-series novel – there is a police investigation, led by Detective Superintendent Fuller, but Selwyn is the the lead sleuth here. To quote gadetection.com on Wills, his books are “pedestrian two-man investigations in the tradition of George Bellairs”. Now one should never judge an author based on a single book (as we all know from Barzun & Taylor’s evisceration of Brian Flynn), but based on this book, that brief summary is quite, quite wrong.
Poison-pen mysteries are difficult stories to tell, because unless the writer is using the “writing the letters to hide the motive for an intended murder” plot, it can be hard to tie the plot strand to a whodunit-murder plot, as the two crimes are quite distinct things. All the way through this book, I was pondering whether the plot would make sense. Was there a good reason for the person to be writing the letters? Was there a reason why the letter writer would know the secrets? Was there a good reason that this would tie in to the deaths – whether it was the writer who was the killer or someone else?
I was delighted to find at the end of the tale that Wills dealt with these questions extremely well. The motivations all round seem believable, if you factor in one character being a bit on the loopy side, but you get a sense in the final scenes of a plan that has somewhat spiralled out of control. Some of the risks taken by the killer seem, well, risky, so it’s no great surprise that they end up getting caught.
It’s not completely perfect as a mystery, notable the overuse of a basic plot device that annoys me a bit, and while there is a sweet romance subplot in the final third of the book, it does come a bit out of nowhere, especially as it suddenly seemed to me that one of the protagonists was significantly younger than I’d assumed – I’ve flicked back and all I see is a few descriptions of him being “bright-eyed”. Oh, and an utterly minor niggle – Storminster seems to be very small for a city, given that everyone seems to know everyone else.
Worth pointing out as well that Wells wrong-footed me completely on the identity of the murderer. It’s often a case with a new author that you don’t know how clever they’re being, but I happily gobbled up the misdirection without realising that I was being misdirected. So that made me very happy to be nicely tricked – I prefer that to working out who the killer is, to be honest.
There’s very little written on Wills on the internet and he’s a swine to collect. In the UK, there are a couple of copies of this one and one other that go for around £20 and then the prices increase significantly. Am I convinced to invest more in Wills based on this one? Well, that is an interesting question – I don’t think so, as those prices are a little steep for me for speculation, despite this being a very enjoyable and engrossing read. One mention on the internet is that he gets better as he writes more, so this might well be one of his better works. I’ve one more on the TBR pile that I will read soon but not sure my wallet will support a serious investigation into the author. I will certainly keep an eye out though…
Maybe in a post-Midsommer Murders world I just associate “midsummer” with cosy English villages, but the title of this novel does seem to suggest somewhere more intimate than a city. It’s also a bit like (but not as bad as) Death with a Difference in that it feels rather vague as a title.
I’m reminded of a bit of trivia about the American cartoon Family Guy, that in its early days it named episodes in a manner suggesting old radio mysteries (Death Has a Shadow, I Never Met the Dead Man, etc). Which it stopped doing after it became impossible to discern what happens in episodes by the titles.
I wonder if the poison pen mystery hasn’t been killed by the internet age. These days you don’t need to go to the trouble of writing a letter to personally yet anonymously abuse someone. You just need to leave a mild expression of opinion on a site with a vast user-base.
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Thank you for introducing me to a new author.
There’s always a new one, isn’t there. Shame he’s so darn expensive. I do think this one is a good one for the British Library range