The Willing Witness (1955) by Belton Cobb

To be honest about it, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to be stripped naked in public, but that I didn’t want to be stripped naked in front of Cheviot Burmann.

When Harold Thompson was found poisoned, locked inside his bedroom in the boarding house where he lived, Kathleen Benson was worried. She was having a relationship with Thompson, a relationship that she thought was a secret. The poison that killed Thompson came from her room. Thompson had stopped for a drink with her hours before he died. And directly before that, she had been given some information about Thompson that had given her more than enough motive for murdering him…

When she meets Detective Inspector Cheviot Burmann, she can’t bring herself to tell the whole truth as she fears it might incriminate him. As she gets to know him, she still can’t bring herself to tell the whole truth in case it changes how he sees her. Because Kathleen Benson has fallen in love – and is desperate that Burmann doesn’t find the truth about her.

Burmann, meanwhile, is finding it very hard to concentrate on the case as efficiently as usual. You see, he has started to fall for one of the suspects…

Detective Inspector Cheviot Burmann has an odd love-life. You may recall from my review of No Alibi, his debut, that he solves that case not with the help of any fellow officer but with the help of his fiancée, Dorothy. When we next meet him, there is (I think) no mention of her, but here we discover that she had “thrown him over in favour of some abominable little twerp with three thousand a year.” His opinion of women has been somewhat warped by this, apparently, and has difficulty trusting them – “more dangerous than snakes” is one choice phrase – but on meeting Kathleen Benson, he basically falls head over heels in love with her. You have to take his previous attitude with something of a pinch of salt, given that I don’t believe it has ever been raised in previous books, but there is some nice conflict given that he desperately wants to believe her despite the evidence pointing more and more in her direction.

Kathleen, on the other hand, seems a little odd to be falling in love with Burmann so quickly, although I’ve no problem with love at first sight, not a bit of it. Given that her lover has just been found dead, it does seem very odd that she is speculating about what being married to Burmann would be like. The conceit about the various reasons for her lying works well though, initially to try to make her seem less guilty, latterly to try and stop Burmann finding out the truth about her – her affair with Thompson is a secret. It develops into a low-level farce, with every step forward being thwarted by a new piece of evidence. There’s a lovely bit where Burmann has bought a hat that he thinks Kathleen would like – he has to have a reason to visit a hat shop, and once in there, can’t help himself. She later finds the hat and decides that not only does Burmann have a lady in his life, it is doubly terrible as she clearly has the same style as Kathleen. Oh, the misunderstandings…

I suppose I should mention that this book forms a trilogy of sorts with the two books that follow, Drink Alone And Die and Corpse At Casablanca. All three books are Cheviot Burmann mysteries and all three are narrated by Kathleen – I would say Kathleen Benson but she’s not Benson by the third one. Sorry if that’s a spoiler for this one, but it’s pretty clear from the tone where this is going. I’m not sure that she makes much of an appearance after this – certainly her narration has gone from Doubly Dead, the book that follows the trilogy. I’ll let you know…

Oh yes, the mystery. That’s what you’re here for. Well, there’s a bit of an information dump near the end of the tale that is necessary for the motive, but I think there’s plenty to keep the reader guessing. The central misdirection in the plot is fairly clued – I certainly spotted it – and I think you can excuse Burmann from not spotting it sooner due to love being in the air, but I think it’s an effective trick nonetheless, and spotting it doesn’t finger the killer. Cobb also does a nice job in not going for the guessable killer – once the background info dump occurs, the cynical armchair sleuth (i.e. me) might be looking in one particular direction, but they would be very wrong…

So all in all, an enjoyable book with a structure (half from Kathleen’s point of view, half from Burmann’s) that works very well, with a nice murder mystery. Stay tuned for my review of the middle part of the trilogy very soon.

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