#206: Death of Anton (1936) by Alan Melville

death-of-antonIf you’ve never read a classic-era novel of crime and detection, what are you waiting for?  There’s that Agatha Christine lady who wrote those David Suchet books, and the British Library has been putting out affordable classics for a little while now — go ahead and dig in.  Sure, some of them are better than others, but if you want a good introduction to this type of thing then Alan Melville’s circus-set Death of Anton might just be the perfect place to start: it’s very witty, written with the lightest of touches, and wastes no time in maundering on in a wannabe hard-boiled fashion while dealing with the seeming imprecations of a circus where death keeps raising its head…

Which is not to say that hardier travellers on these routes won’t also find much to enjoy, but there’s a notable absence of Ellery Queen’s sudden reversals, or of John Dickson Carr’s precarious over-plotting.  Melville seems intent on putting the ‘fun’ into fundamentals, and so covers the basics of the detective story in a very (ahem) arresting way.  His Scotland Yard detective Mr. Minto — we never learn his first name — is gentlemanly and unfussy and, upon finding himself at a circus where the tiger-taming Anton is mysteriously killed, goes about his detection in a gentlemanly and unfussy way: people are generally questioned politely, he strikes his knee and utters an “Oh, hell” at setbacks, and must contend with his sister’s impending marriage to a dull young man in the meantime.

What I especially appreciated is how Melville manages to be flippant around, but never about, the death that forms the basis of this story.  We neither linger on nor shy away from the spectacle of a body mauled by tigers, and those felines are described during  the commission of their turn in the rings of the circus in a way that makes the evident threat they pose very real.  This balancing of the light and dark is a far harder job than Melville makes it appear, and for a book to be both so charming and so serious at the same time is immensely impressive.  Most of this is down to the deployment of Melville’s characters, focussing on a small section of those involved in the circus while hinting at the larger issues, frustrations, and jostling for position that goes on behind the scenes, with equal amounts bathos and pathos stirred expertly into the mix.

There’s a fabulous reflection on the life of being a performer in the circus early on from one of the clowns — sometimes you don’t know what kind of town you’re in, and so what sort of slapstick will go down well — that fills in a huge amount of the 1936 setting, enriched by one of Mr. Minto’s pieces of subterfuge later on that brings us into contact with a veteran of the First World War with much to gripe about.  I also found it especially interesting how all the peremptory characters here are the women: while Mr. Minto and his priest brother find themselves gently at loggerheads over a key aspect of the case, it is their sister Claire who seems the most decisive about what she expects and wants from both her brothers and her fiancé.  Equally, it is Loretta, the female half of the flying trapeze act, who evinces the strongest emotion when confronted with allegations of infidelity and stirs the somewhat passive Lorimer into a course of action that accidentally kicks off another facet of the plot.

9780712357883The mystery itself thankfully plays a larger part in the narrative here than can be said the first touchstone people will inevitably reach for, namely Leo Bruce’s Case with Four Clowns (1939).  It’s all a bit Death in Paradise with the parade of suspects, each in turn revealed to have motive, and the sudden forcing of a resolution come the end, but as comfortable reads go you can do far worse.  There’s not a huge amount in the way of clues to join together, and it’s a tiny bit frustrating that the few which could be interesting are the sort of thing that are very difficult to communicate in the written medium, and it lacks somewhat for actual evidence, but for an introduction it’s a good place to start, and will provide an enjoyable time for all.

And, I’ll be honest, I’m intrigued by the notion of a “respectable train back to town” — does this mean that some trains were more respectable than others?  My mind is seething with the possibilities…

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See also:

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Anyhow, the introduction of all of these characters, life in a traveling circus and Minto’s investigation is told with zest and humor, which is filled with funny exchanges and winking at the detective story … It makes for a fun, fast and mostly light-hearted story in the spirit of the comedy-of-manners and tongue-in-cheek style of mysteries…

Sarah Hapgood: It’s safe to say this isn’t your usual 1930s whodunnit.  There are no stately homes, no idiosyncratic sleuths unravelling a complex puzzle of a plot, culminating in a dramatic showdown, with The One You Least Suspect as the culprit.  I didn’t guess who the culprit was here, because frankly I was too busy enjoying all the rest of it!

~

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the cover of this book shown at the top of this review because, as we know, the British Library Crime Classics have established a very distinct visual identity, one that’s been so successful, in fact, that other publishers are scrambling to ape it.  Many of the images used in this BL series are taken from old tourism and railway posters, but this is one of an increasing number of excellent original covers created by Chris Andrews specifically for theis series.  It fits so perfectly with the colouring and styling of the ‘pre-existing’ covers that the fact of it being contemporary to the new version could easily pass you by — surely a sign of a great job extremely well done.

I submit this cover for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Carriage/Wagon.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Oil Under the Window from last week as both were originally published in 1936.

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32 thoughts on “#206: Death of Anton (1936) by Alan Melville

  1. Pleased you enjoyed this one. Definitely one of my absolute favourites from the BL series. I definitely agree that Melville creates an interesting mixture of dark and light elements in the story. I also think it is quite an achievement to have a scene where a walrus is eating sausages at a bangers and mash party and not have the plot collapse into complete and total farce.

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    • It does veer somewhat into the ludicrous at times, doesn’t it? And yet Melville complete makes it work. I think he walks his toes right up to the line so many times — the whole “What nationality is you chef?” thing is superb in that regard — that it’s perfectly easy to allow him to plant a whole foot over it on a few occasions without complaint.

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  2. Thanks for the review, which has whetted my appetite for Melville – I have ‘Quick Curtain’ sitting on the metaphorical TBR pile in my Kindle. Random question: why are there two distinct British Library covers for ‘Death of Anton’?

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  3. I have Quick Curtain on the shelf, just added along with a few other BL titles in the last week or two as it happens, so I’m pleased to see a positive take on another of the writer’s books.

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    • Quick Curtain didn’t sound as interesting to me, hence why I started with this one, but I fully intend to check it out given how enjoyable I found DoA. That’s pretty much the litmus test, isn’t it?: Yup, I would read more by this guy…

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  4. Glad to read you found this as enjoyable a mystery as I did, but good luck getting any enjoyment out of your next read. Arguably, one of the most disappointing and awful locked room mysteries I’ve ever wasted my time on. Simply awful.

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    • I won’t comment too much till the next review goes up but I kind of agree. While I don’t think I could say the book was awful, I did find it disappointing overall.

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      • I sort of get the impression that Rawson was better in the shorter form — some of the Merlini short stories were absolute gems, but his novels divide opinion quite markedly. It’s partly for this reason that I’m reluctant to spend too much money in acquiring The Headless Lady, the only Merlini novel I don’t have…

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        • Quite, his books can be a bit pricey these days. I think Top Hat is very good indeed and Footprints is only a very short step below. Headless Lady was a colorless affair as I recall, despite the promising setting, and No Coffin was, as I mentioned, a disappointment, particularly as a result of the potential of its opening.

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          • A quick search of my country’s various official book-peddling retailers reveals that not a single Rawson title is available to buy new…and the secondhand prices are therefore commensurately high. S’alright, got plenty to read in the meantime… 🙂

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    • …which is exactly why I want to read it — you were so adamant about this that it’s made me really curious to see what I make of it. Time will tell…

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      • I think Rawson tends to hit and miss within the same book — Death from a Top Hat has some flat-out brilliance, but it is hidden by some horrible purple prose and a piece of chicanery that is pretty hard to swallow (and, of course, provies key to the whole thing).

        That’s the impression I get, anyway. I’m reading this one to help form it more clearly from actual first-hand experience. We shall find out next week (well, I’ll find out before then; don’t usually have to read my own reviews to find out how I felt about a book).

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  5. Great stuff JJ, have you read much more of the British Library series? I am wondering, if it’s not to harsh to say, that I may find them a little too cosy? Even the branding, as consistent as is it, gives me a sleepy feeling. Although this ones feels more in line with Crispin for humour/pace etc?

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    • I could go and look at my shelves, but from memory I’ve also read:

      Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon
      The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon
      The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts
      The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude
      The Poisoned Cholocates Case by Anthony Berkeley
      Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

      Some of them are cosier than others, for sure, but the Berkeley is a classic for the ages, the Crofts a piece of masterful obsession in detail, and the first Farjeon has a very interesting sleuth who makes a lot of quick inductive jumps without needing to lecture for four pages in doing so; Bude is less to my taste, being a little too fussy and bland for me, and the Wynne was…fine (I think I have a reciew here somewhere — I’m almost positive, in fact!).

      I own but have not yet read Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg and Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton, and I’ll definitely be looking at getting the other Crofts at some point. So it’s a series worth exploring, but the discerning reader will have to pick their way through it a bit.

      This is very much a Good Crispin in terms of humour, pace, and tone, yup, though it manages its farce in a less farcical way; I was very impressed, as anything being published in the same series as TPCC has a bloody huge act to follow…!

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      • Yes indeed! I didn’t realise they had done TPCC as well. Nice to hear that they are varied, I think I have been a bit put off by the covers in a way (or maybe frustrated in that the covers make me think it will only attract a certain type of new reader if you get my meaning?), but I am more keen to give them a go after your review and a few over at Cross Examining Crime and on TomCat’s as well.

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        • Ha, I kinda know what you mean about the people who it’s possible will be attracted to them and the fact that the series may then play up to that set of expectations. I’m obviously not aware of the precise remit by which the series operates, but they do have a clear focus on a mixture of entertaining and obscure — even something like TPCC has the Christianna Brand additional ending alongside a completely new ending from Martin Edwards, as part of a concerted effort to give something different rather than just trot out the expected.

          And, well, if it helps, think of it like this: whatever impression people may or may not be encouraged to have about these books from their branding, it can’t do more damage to the perception of classic GA detection than those Catholic guilt-filled Poirot adaptations of recent years…and a damn sight more people watched those than read these!

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          • Very good point. I am thinking, it would be great if we could somehow collect the reviews of the British library series that people have done, a bit like Ben at Green Capsule has done with the Carr reviews. Worthwhile task do you think, or a bit superfluous?

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          • Bloody hell, I think that there are so many reviews of the BLCC books across the internet that one would be able to find a review of every stripe and hue for every book thus far published; so, y’know, it would take a while. But it might be a useful resource for the same reason as that Carr index…I mean, if you want to then go ahead — I’d refer to it, for sure — but make sure you’ve done all your others jobs first 😀

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      • Interesting. I’ve been eyeing those Bude titles for a bit now, possibly because I’d never heard of him before this series was born, and also because he’s so well represented (5 books?) compared to others.

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        • Bude published (I believe) some 30-odd books, so his representation could be due to an amenable rights-holder who’s happy to just have the lot republished, and the BL people are going through the highlights. No idea if they’re selling especially well for the series, but I can see that people would enjoy them in a Heartbeat/Misomer Murders kinda way — the was I read was just not my sort of thing.

          Kate hates Freeman Wills Crofts, and I think he has four in here. I loved Hog’s Back, but I couldn’t do too many of them in a year. They’ve got a good coverage of styles and authors, and I think pretty much anyone, no matter what their tastes in GAD, will find something to their liking now that the roster has grown somewhat. I’d be suspicious of anyone who says they love them all, but it could be possible I guess 🙂

          I forgot to say that I’m intending to try one of the John Rowlands, too, possibly Murder in the Museum, because he was someone I’d never heard of; that’s one particularly brilliant thing about this series, it’s not just chugging out Raymond CHandler reprints, they’re really putting their backs into finding old and forgotten things for us. It’s so cool to have an institution such as the British Library behind this kind of thing, because if the book exists you know they have the means to track it down and publish it.

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      • I liked seeing your views on a few of the books in this series. As I think I’ve mentioned here in the comments section before, my Farjeon experience was so abysmal that I was very wary of picking up something else from BLCC. Now I’ve read this book by Melville, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I have Sprigg’s “Death of an Airman”, which has earned some good reviews, on by TBR pile. And of course I’ve read “Poisoned Chocolates” before… 😉

        So I think I will continue picking up some of these – the ones that entice me most are probably Martin Edwards’ different anthologies. Anthony Wynne is an author that I’ve been meaning to check out as well, so it’s good to see that you’re so definite about his book’s merits. 😉

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        • Of the two Farjeons I’ve experienced, Mystery in White is far the better; not sure if any more are going to follow, but one would hope that the series ould branch out into more athors rather than recycling the same ones. not up to me in either case, though, and you can’t exactly argue with the success they’ve had, so I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

          I think I reviewed the Wynne on here, and it’s good but overlong, and I have a few issues with the presentation of the crime. You can skip it from an impossibility perspective, but there are some interesting pints for the historian.

          I also remembered the John Rowland books in this series, and intend to check him out — thankfully the novels they’ve got coming up aren;t qyite my kind of thing, so I’ll have some time to catch up on Sprigg, Burton, Crofts, and Rowland, plus the impossible crime compendium coming in April…yeah, it’s fair to say they’re getting the mix pretty spot on.

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  6. “I’m intrigued by the notion of a “respectable train back to town” — does this mean that some trains were more respectable than others? ”

    Some trains were definitely less respectable than others. The milk train, which took milk from the country for delivery in town and was very late or very early, depending on whether or not you’d gone to bed, was not respectable. People who had been ejected by their hosts often found themselves travelling on the milk train in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels.

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    • Thanks, James, this is really cool — I’d never considered this sort of thing; goddamn, these books raise even more new (old) ideas the more you read them…

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