July 1936, the town of Paulsfield. In the middle of the town square stands the statue of Lord Shawford, and cleaning it was Thomas Earnshaw’s job to clean the statue – note the use of the past tense there, because just when everyone in the square was distracted by an escaped bull, someone shot him in the head.
Enter Inspector Charlton who soon discovers many obstacles in his hunt for the killer. There were far too many places for the killer to have fired the fatal shot from, and far too many suspects who might have had the opportunity. There’s also what appears to be a race against time – for soon the “Sniper” has claimed a second victim – and a third. Is the killer a madman? Or are they working to a plan?
Clifford Witting wrote a number of mystery novels between 1936 and 1964, and is currently undergoing something of a revival in popularity, with the reprint last Christmas of Catt Out Of The Bag and two more released this month, Murder In Blue and Measure For Murder courtesy out of Galileo. But, awkward cuss that I am, I’m not going to review those. I’m going to review this one instead, Witting’s second book.
According to the dustjacket (no, I don’t have it, but there’s a copy online) this is actually a prequel to Murder In Blue that was published the previous year. I have absolutely no idea what difference it makes, setting this before that one, as I haven’t read that one, but now you know. I have read two other Witting titles, Dead On Time and There Was A Crooked Man, both of which I enjoyed, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for the occasional appearance of an affordable copy of one of his books. This one cropped up a little while ago so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
Witting has a wonderful voice to tell this story, especially in the opening sections as we meet the suspects, whether it’s the man who runs the tobacconists/sweetshop or the lady who watches everything and keeps records of everything she sees on index cards. It’s a very promising start to a Golden Age serial killer tale, and while the prose never rises to those heights after the first section, it is still considerably more readable than most.
Plotwise, it does drag a tad in the middle section, but that’s not the real issue here. There’s never any whiff of a motive put forward for the reader to theorise about which does make it harder for the reader to play along with. There is a logic of sorts about the crime, but it doesn’t really point to the murderer, despite what the ending would make you think. Not that you have any time to think about it, as it doesn’t stop, rather it screeches to a halt once the murderer is revealed.
I think this is probably the weakest of the three Witting books that I’ve read to date, but the quality of Witting’s prose does help the plot failings. I’ve a couple more of Witting’s books on the shelf, so I’ll definitely be checking those out sooner rather than later. But to paraphrase an recent review, not the best book called Midsummer Murder that I’ve read this year.