Inspector Burmann’s Busiest Day (1939) by Belton Cobb

Helen Blundell was not a happy woman. She lived with her husband and her parents-in-law, and they didn’t particularly like her. Her marriage seemed to be a reasonable state of affairs, at least where her sister was not around. Oh, and she was convinced she was being poisoned by arsenic…

As her symptoms persist, she becomes more and more exasperated that everyone, even her doctor, refuses to take her claims seriously. But it seems there may well be some truth in her claims – unfortunately people only realise this after Helen lies dead. Enter Inspector Cheviot Burmann, brought onto the case at four in the morning. But can he trap the murderer before the day is out?

This is the eighth mystery from Belton Cobb – I don’t know if it’s the eighth Inspector Burmann title as Cobb had a few different sleuths – and it’s another case of poisoning. Cobb did seem to like poison as the murder weapon. The crux of this particular tale is how exactly Helen, and another victim, were poisoned. There is a very small circle of suspects – the aforementioned family, a couple of servants and the family doctor – and the primary concentration is on how exactly the poison was administered. A timetable is established of the rough times each victim received a dose of arsenic, and it falls to Burmann to find out exactly what happened and when. The only problem is, whenever he finds a working theory, it gets shot down by the evolving scientific evidence.

The scientific evidence of the timing of the poisoning is fascinating stuff, and Cobb does admit to cheating when it comes to the speed that the lab at Hendon (conveniently close to the murder scene) processes their findings. It’s a bit odd that he tries for this idea of solving a small-scale murder in 24 hours – there’s no real deadline for Burmann. Admittedly, it’s hardly the speediest bit of work – look at how much Jack Bauer could get done in the time – I think it’s only done to give the book it’s rather strange title.

It’s an enjoyable book, especially once Helen is dead, as she’s a very annoying individual. I can see why somebody would kill her – she’s portrayed as a whiny woman of particularly low intelligence. The rest of the family fare better, with some enjoyable sparring between Burmann and the father-in-law. The solution is fairly guessable, but it’s clever enough – I think experienced readers of crime fiction will spot at least part of it…

All in all, an enjoyable murder mystery which while not perfect, is very entertaining. As ever, good luck finding a copy…

Obscure Phrase Of The Week: “Is it pain in Little Mary?” The use of the phrase “Little Mary” to represent the stomach first arises in J M Barrie’s weird play “Little Mary”. It gets a mention in Greenshaw’s Folly, the Miss Marple short story, where Miss Marple doesn’t use the euphemism but recalls her shock at the play for that fact that it used the word “stomach” – “When I was a girl, Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach.” This book is the only other time I’ve ever seen it used.

Obscure Reference Of The Week: Gordon Harker. On meeting the young Inspector Burmann, Dr Osborne reflects “he had expected a burly, middle-aged man in large boots, a bowler hat and the general appearance of Mr Gordon Harker.” I presume this means the actor Gordon Harker, who seems most notable for playing Inspector Hornleigh in three films, three comic mysteries co-starring Alistair Sim. The first of these films was written by Edgar Wallace’s son, trivia fans.

Obscure Phrase That I’ve Never Heard But Professor Puzzle Doctor (Formerly Mrs Puzzle Doctor) Can’t Believe I Haven’t: Kirbigrip. That’s the proper name for a hair grip, apparently


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