It started simply enough – Dennis Whinnley, a writer, was waiting for his flatmate Claude when he spotted a young woman, Jean, who sparked the memory of a girl who he was never brave enough to talk to when he was younger. Amazingly, it is the same person, and soon Dennis and Claude are being invited to dinner by her guardian Martin. Things look like they are going swimmingly until a bizarre set of events begin.
Claude’s only relative, a long-absent uncle, a scientist working on the secret of artificial diamonds, is killed in a break-in. Martin sells his own country house and, claiming it to be an investment, buys the scientist’s run down estate. Dennis, Claude and Martin’s extended family come to stay for a week, but the atmosphere of the house is oppressive – ghosts are sighted, a deeply unpleasant man with a hold over Martin appears, and then people start to disappear. And Martin seems to be planting geraniums in grave-sized flower beds…
So there I was, browsing on eBay, and saw this title for a few quid. Given the seller was mostly selling crime fiction and this title seemed to be a pun on the Christie mystery – it had the title And Then There Were None in the US on initial publication in 1940 – or at least from the nursery rhyme that had plenty of deaths in it, I figured this was a mystery novel. On doing a bit of research, it seems the mysterious W H Lane Crauford wrote mystery novels and, to quote the frontispiece, “humour” novels. The gadetection website lists some of the mystery novels, but there are a few mentioned here that aren’t on that list, but I can’t find a definitive bibliography, especially one listing which titles are in which category. A potentially interesting candidate for the next Brian Flynn? But based on this title, is that the case?
This is the thing with unknown authors, you never know what you’re going to get, and this is a flipping odd book. It takes an age for anything concrete to happen – the murder of Claude’s uncle is described briefly at the start, but not in a way that actually makes it part of the plot. Everyone jollies along to the house, and people behave a bit oddly, Dennis and Jean fall in love to no-one’s surprise, and then finally, apart from the occasional mention of ghosts, something finally happens.
And it happens so late in the narrative – at least 2/3 of the way through – that I can’t explain what it is. I can’t even explain the title of the book – this isn’t people in the house being picked off one by one – because that’s a massive spoiler. It is worth saying though that when the thing happens – and it is the sort of thing that would be something of a game-changer at a week-long house-party – every acts very oddly. Calling the police seems to be an inconvenience, despite the discovery of something that the members of the house can’t have been responsible for. OK, one person has a reason not to call them, but not most of the household!
And the mystery, such as it is, has aspects that basically come out of nowhere and aspects that are, well not obvious, as the characters just don’t act like real people, but is still lacking any sort of surprise. Despite the bonkers events in the final third, this is a strangely flat book, not really like anything I’ve read in the Golden Age before. Is W H Lane Crauford an author I’ll be looking out for in the future… well, probably not. This is very readable, but it’s got a plot that is badly paced, doesn’t contain any real surprise, one plot point is never explained and the characters that make choices for no reason other than to prolong the plot. Other than that…
Any of you come across Lane Crauford before? Anyone want to give a second opinion?