No Alibi (1936) by Belton Cobb

The village of Greyfont is shocked by the unexplained death of famous author Christopher Heriot by arsenic poisoining. There were only three possibilities. In the time when the poison was ingested, Heriot was either with his wife or his nephew, Cecil, who were watching him at all times. So either he found a way to commit suicide in front of them or one of them (or both) persuaded him to take a capsule or two of arsenic.

Detective Inspector Cheviot  Burmann is sent to get to the bottom of things, eschewing a Detective Sergeant, rather taking his fiancée Dorothy instead. Faced with basically no evidence and only word of mouth as to what happened, can Burmann bring one of the two suspects to justice? Or might a third party have a hand in the death?

This is the first novel by Belton Cobb – here credited as G Belton Cobb – and introduces Cheviot Burmann, Superintendent Dace, his boss, and, I suppose, his fiancée Dorothy, but I’m unsure how long she sticks around for. Pretty sure she isn’t in Fatal Dose, the third book, and when Cheviot does get married approximately twenty years later (in publishing terms) to a different woman entirely. Is Dorothy’s fate addressed in The Poisoner’s Mistake, the second book? I’ll let you know, as that one will be my next Cobb read.

What do we learn about Burmann, the lead character in the majority of Cobb’s books? Not an awful lot. He has ambitions of promotion, he doesn’t like knocking on doors (on both moral and political grounds, whatever that means) and believes that Scotland Yard takes itself too seriously. There is a nice justification given to why the local policeman, Superintendent Wilkes, is useless (as the local force inevitably are in such books). He has a “bullying manner, partly innate, partly the result of many years’ police work in a district where crime was seldom committed by educated people.” It does sort of make sense.

As for the case, it’s very typical of Cobb’s approach. Take a small set of suspects and weave a tale around alibis and evidence to come to a solution that needs a timetable to help sort out who was where when (and could have done with a map, too). It’s not perfect as a plot, as some information comes very late and one aspect of the plan could have been used to deliver the poison anyway, and given that people suddenly recall seeing that happen, that could have hanged the murderer anyway!

But it’s all presented well. Cobb has a sly line in humour and writes well. There are a number of chapters where the same suspects are interviewed again (and again) and he keeps it distinctive, although inevitably in such stories, when information is brought up in later conversations that should have been in earlier ones, it can be a bit annoying. There are also a couple of intriguing plot points that seem to be important, leading to interesting motives, but end up basically being irrelevant.

This is Cobb’s first book and for an opener, it’s a decent effort. He will go on to do produce much better books, such as Fatal Dose, but there is still a lot to like here, and not just the cover…

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