Regular readers of this blog – hello, Mum – will be aware of how much I appreciate die-hard devotees like Fender Tucker and Tom and Enid Schantz, whose (respectively) Ramble House and Rue Morgue Press imprints have for years been keeping the kind of classics everyone had long forgotten about in print just for the love of them. I won’t condescend to imply that everything they publish is of equal quality, but some of it is more equal than others and they have jointly brought some absolute delights to my attention. Unfortunately the latter’s Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert proved not to be my kind of thing and so I couldn’t really review it having not read it, but it does give me a chance to talk about Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness which is published by the former and I read in those bleak and hazy dark days I now think of as ‘pre-blog’.
This is a superbly earnest Golden Age romp – there’s a lot of ejaculating when people speak – with just enough edge of crazy in its setup to elevate it above the standard English Country House Fare: a thief dressed as an owl (it’s okay, you read that correctly) carries out a series of daring thefts before setting their sights on scientist and his particularly valuable Macguffin. A warning note is sent ahead of each crime bearing the legend “Fly by Night!” (interesting fact: the alternative title for this book in certain territories) and when the police are called in to help protect said Macguffin…well, what do you think? Yes, there is a closed circle of suspects; yes, there is a big house; yes, there are shocking revelations and a criss-cross of motivations and deliberate obfuscation; and, yes, there is both a dyed-in-the-wool dogged detective and his talisman genius amateur whom he tolerates and is the one to actually get to the bottom of things. Nevertheless, do not get complacent on account of this classic crime perseveration: we wade just far enough into the tropes of the genre to get you comfortable and then all manner of surprises are pulled out from beneath you…
Afford (in my mind it rhymes with Old Trafford, rather than being the answer to a question about a brand of car) was an Australian who produced a fair number of plays for radio alongside his novels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, he has a lovely ear for the way people speak (he trips lightly into some delightfully phonetic speech at times) as well as a gift with atmospheric phrases that suddenly veer out and grip you by the throat when you’re at risk of expecting some below-par fare:
There was one of those hushed silences when all the world seems to have paused, listening: the blank, timeless break between thunderclap and downpour when the very air hovers motionless.
His multiple strands dovetail very well in a way that reminds me of couple-of-reviews-back author, and fellow RH alumnus, Norman Berrow, and a repeated motif of reporting certain events retrospectively helps to hasten proceedings along, with enough suspects and mysterious behaviour among the thrillerish goings-on to divert your attention this way and that. Adherents to Father Knox’s decalogue will be slightly – only slightly, mind – put out, but the rest of you will doubtless realise how much fun he’s having and forgive his minor transgressions.
The one situation that edges towards a ‘locked room’ element fades into nothing soon thereafter, and there’s another possible impossible crime (if you get me) later on that’s simply a result of Afford not considering his timings properly, but for sheer bonkers enjoyment I’m more than happy to let that slide. Through the quantity of metadata I’ve amassed on this genre over the years I was able to tumble to the guilty party and essential workings of the core criminal enterprise, but these two mild disappointments don’t detract too greatly from the joyous few hours spent blitzing through Max Afford’s helter-skelter world for the first time. He even consequentially slipped a complete humdinger of a surprise past me when I was convinced I had everything worked out, and that’s always a nice feeling, isn’t it?
Genius amateur Jeffery Blackburn runs the risk of becoming one of those paragons who has lived one of those perfect lives – Oxford-educated, probably about 40 years old and already resigned the Chair of Mathematics position at a fictional university to pursue his anti-criminal enterprises – but is saved from supercilliousness by having absolutely no clue what is going on at times. Every time you think he’s going to veer into Gervase Swamp or Ellery Duchess territory, Afford brings him back from the brink with a quiet reminder to wind his neck in, and he’s kept from speechifying and other such grandstanding as he’s too busy following leads, getting into scrapes and occasionally standing by with a confused look on his face. As archetypes go, this Genius Amateur is among the least archtypal I’ve encountered in this type of novel, and if he’s a little hard to pin down then he’s also a character I look forward to spending a lot more time with.
Afford isn’t quite the discovery of my year, but he does enough well enough to merit being more widely read and I commend him to those of you who are looking for Country House fare. Huge fun, a great read, another wonderful discovery courtesy of Ramble House; chalk up another success to the Golden Age, and continued good health and happy sailing to all who bring these books to our attention.