Look Alive (1949) by Miles Burton

David Wiston was taking Annabel Dorset out for a drive – he couldn’t spare the petrol for a trip to the coast, so they settled for Fembrake Forest. Annabel was convinced that David was going to propose to her, but that wasn’t the only thing on her mind, as Fembrake was where her Great-aunt Claire – who Annabel had never met – lived. As it happens, no proposal is forthcoming, but Annabel’s curiosity is piqued and she drops in to visit her. Great-aunt Claire is sleeping in her hammock, but neither Annabel or David – a newly qualified doctor – can wake her…

Fearing that she is dead, they rush to fetch David’s father, only to return to find Claire alive and well and giving an interview about her career. Confused, they leave, but later David’s father relates the story to Desmond Merrion. Merrion is concerned that there is more to this than a simple mistake and starts snooping round the area. When he comes upon a nearby boathouse, he breaks in, concerned about the rats surrounding the place. He finds two dead bodies inside, one fresh (but disfigured by the rats) and one skeleton. The body however could not belong to Great-aunt Claire, as she was more than twice as old as the dead body. What on earth is going on?

Look Alive is a relatively late Miles Burton tale, about two-thirds of the way through the Desmond Merrion mysteries. There’s a general consensus that the late Rhode/Burton tales are sub-par compared to his earlier output, but based on this book, that theory is utter nonsense. I should say that based on a fair few other titles from the period, that theory makes perfect sense, but I thought this was a really well-crafted mystery.

It’s one of the more findable Burton mysteries, as there was a UK reprint in 1977 along with some presumably illicit print-on-demand copies in the US, so I imagine some of you out there may well have read it, or have it sitting in a TBR pile. The problem is an engrossing one and the author does a good job playing the “what is going on” card. It’s not an easy card to play for a mystery author as the reader often needs a hook to hang their detection efforts on, but there is enough here to keep the reader thinking, despite the corpses remaining unidentified until very late in the tale. There’s enough here, I think, for the alert reader to spot what’s going on.

The one thing that did strike me is that the two strands of plot – to be vague, the murder and everything else – didn’t gel together perfectly, but regardless, Burton engages in some strong misdirection with the plot to hide both parts of the tale. Merrion comes across as clever for deducing the truth, Arnold never comes across as an idiot and while perhaps some of the other characters may be somewhat on the one-dimensional side, they are nicely distinct.

All in all, this is a really fun murder mystery. Not up there with the Rhode/Burton masterpieces, but definitely way above average. Worth tracking down a copy…

5 comments

  1. I too enjoyed this one . In particular the badinage between the newly qualified doctor and his experienced father . As ever with Burton ,the rural settings do add to the atmosphere …in particular the gruesome boathouse.

    Like

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