Le Jardin de Olives is one of the most exclusive places to eat in all of London in the late 1940s. An establishment that survived and prospered even during the war – due to a dinner room located in a bunker – it is the perfect venue for a meeting for prospective members of that most exclusive club for explorers, the Marco Polo club. Eight world-travellers have met up, having received an invitation that explains that they are to be considered for membership.
As they talk, they begin to realise that this is, in fact, some sort of practical joke and there is no place in the club at stake at all. The perpetrator of that joke would seem to be one Elias Towne, a fellow explorer who was seen in the vicinity of the restaurant earlier, before leaving. As the annoyed guests prepare to sit down to dine and discuss setting up their own rival club, the owner of the restaurant makes a discovery. It seems that Elias Towne returned to the restaurant, only to be bludgeoned to death behind a screen in the dining room. Enter Inspector MacDonald.
This has all the potential for a great read. Explorers don’t get that much of a look-in in Golden Age detective fiction, so there’s loads of ideas to mine there, along with the mechanics of how the victim returned to the room unseen (and indeed was murdered without anyone noticing?)
So why is the book so blooming boring? Because this is one of the most tedious books I’ve read in a long time.
The explorers are all fairly character-free and despite their number being basically cut in half (as we only really follow/suspect about four of them) they all come across as clones of each other, with the exception of one, but only because she doesn’t have a Y chromosome. I don’t think cloning can manage that. Inspector MacDonald is hardly a stand-up comedian either, usually relying on bouncing off more interesting suspects – the narrative switches from the explorers to him and back again, but neither of them caught my interest.