John Thornton was found dead in his study, a stiletto knife in his back. It seemed like an open and shut case – his closest circle, his son, his daughter and her fiancé were all out of the house, the housekeeper had no motive and, most of all, there was a strange young woman in the house that nobody claimed to know giving an unbelievable story of how she came to be there – she was picked up by a stranger (not the victim) and brought to the house for unspecific reasons.
Detective Inspector Cheviot Burmann didn’t think this was a complicated case, bar the young woman’s behaviour – surely if she was a killer, she would have a better alibi than that? And why would she have brought a stiletto with her? But then a discovery is made that turns the whole case on its head. Is it possible that John Thornton was murdered twice?
Ah, Belton Cobb, my would-be Brian Flynn substitute. It’s always a gamble – you find an obscure author, like the first couple of books. Then you come to a crossroads – do you stockpile as many cheap copies as you can? After all, my blog posts on dear old Brian definitely increased demand (and hence prices) for his back catalogue, to my chagrin (and expense).
So that’s what I did – I’ve got loads of Cobb at home. He’s actually got his own bookcase – it’s a small bookcase, to be fair, but even so. I’ve got copies of a lot of his books, the standalones, the Superintendent Manning series and the Burmann/Ross/Palgrave/Armitage universe tales. And I’m starting to think that just possibly, I may have hitched my star to the wrong wagon. While I’ve enjoyed most of his work, I’ve yet to be utterly blown away by one of his books in its entirety. I can’t see any publisher ever heading for a complete works reprint… He’s no Brian, alas…
The books follow a fixed pattern for the most part. Unlike most writers, Cobb always makes very clear exactly who his suspects are. Never has a closed circle been more closed – I’ve yet to see him pull the wool out from under the reader by having a character being guilty who wasn’t suspected of the crime. Often there is a very nice central idea, usually relating to how someone was poisoned, and sometimes it comes together very well – Fatal Dose is probably the best that I’ve read, with a great clue hidden in plain sight. Here, similarly, there is a great idea very well hidden, but it doesn’t come up until late. Unfortunately, it’s buried under a hideously complicated plot that rivals any train-timetable plotting from Cobb’s contemporaries.
It starts off well, with Burmann, recently happily married, looking on the bright side and seeing the best in everyone. Cobb seems to forget about this after a bit – Burmann’s wife, the narrator of the previous three books, is now relegated to a couple of mentions, which is a shame. Then we get to meet Miss Janet Jones, the stranger to the household. She is a terrible character, not just in her dialogue, but in Cobb’s ideas about a young woman’s morals – she basically goes walking and jumps into the first man’s car who pulls up, to see what happens – regularly. Or possibly she’s lying because she’s a murderer, but even so…
There’s a reasonable stab at misdirection to hide the killer – not really good enough though, but he did try – and there’s a nice explanation when… OK, how to phrase this non-spoilery? Suppose the second death was Thornton being stabbed with a fork. Burmann discovers that none of the forks have enough prongs, so how did it happen? The answer to the actual question is smart, although there seems to have been so much going on in that house when it was supposed to be empty, I’ll be honest, I read it carefully, and I didn’t get when someone first stuck the fork in him. I appreciate that the events become convoluted for plot reasons, rather than the author getting over-excited, but I was still lost in places. The motive and fate of the killer are well done, though.
All in all, not one of Cobb’s best, and with an annoying amount of potential that it could have been.