#228: Murder in Black and White (1931) by Evelyn Elder

Murder in Black and WhiteIdentity and location, as I’ve said before, are really the two hooks on which a staggering majority of the detective genre hangs.  And if you want to get the most out of the impossible shooting tale Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder — pseudonym of Detective Club alumnus Milward Kennedy — you’re going to need patience in figuring out the latter.  Because while he has a good sense of character and action, as soon as anyone is required to go anywhere, or it becomes necessary to understand the internal layout of the ancient French citadel-cum-château that features so prominently, it’s as if his narrative powers desert him and he’s writing with a stick of celery.

Famously — possibly not ‘famously’, I guess, depending on how well-know it is — the second part of this novel consists simply of five diagrams done by our protagonist, artist Samuel Horder, showing the Château St. André and surrounds.  I’d heard it said that it would be possible to solve the mystery of a man shot from the Tour Panteleon even though no-one there had a gun simply by looking at these diagrams, and that piqued my interest immensely.  As it turns out, this isn’t true, but the diagrams are helpful in trying to understand Kennedy’s frank narrative stagnation when it comes to how people move around the château, and I referred back to these frequently each time a feature of the setting was utilised.  It’s not exactly the smoothest of reading experiences, but I can’t deny the verisimilitude of such seemingly-unhelpful diagrams paired with the text.

It’s got me thinking about the use of diagrams, crime scene maps, and the like — something of a fascination of mine, you may be aware — in the genre, because here it feels both very new (the level of detail is really too great to be of proper functional use, as if Kennedy is stepping into something whereof he doesn’t quite understand) and sort of convention-overhauling at the same time (you’ll see what I mean if you read this).  It brings to mind, not unpleasantly, the work of Anthony Berkeley in this regard, and prevents the slightly uninspired structure from damaging the reading experience too greatly.  Being forced to really concentrate on the diagrams, and to work quite hard in matching them with the text, added to the experience for me, though your mileage will vary.

We also have the challenge-to-the-reader-esque frontispiece below, adding to the sense of innovation since, as Martin Edwards notes, it predates Rupert Penny’s The Talkative Policeman (1936) by some five years in the “now you know it all, put it to use” stakes:

Murder in B&W CttR

The key difference, I’d suggest, is that in Penny’s case it was actually true, since I defy anyone to get to the end of Part 3 and be able to devise the manner of how the shot was fired and the gun disappeared.  You’ll get some glimmer of what’s going on — there’s a key clue that a better author from this era would have waved as a red herring, but it’s delivered with a subtlety that almost enables it to slip by — but the actual workings…no, not a chance.  And, to be honest, the solution itself is more than a little simplistic and frustrating, as it’s about a fifth as clever as it needs to be given the very engaging and lively setup that has brought us to the point of revelation.

However, I don’t want Kennedy to cop too much flak here.  The prose is very engaging, and he has a masterful use of tone — stick with the cocktail party you’re dropped into in chapter 1: yes, it’s annoying trying to keep track of who’s who, but the banter is perfectly-pitched for the occasion, and all but the two most memorable characters disappear from the narrative altogether after a few pages (there are a couple of thoroughly unimportant references to two of them later on).  The utilisation of Real Tennis, while something of a gimmick, is also redolent with terminology and descriptions that slyly evince how confusing these sorts of things are to the uninitiated and uninterested…rest assured, this is a mystery novel, not merely a player’s guide masquerading as one.

So it’s a mixture of things.  The prose is typically sharp enough that I’d read Kennedy again, but his use of invention in the impossible crime stakes disappoints, making me think that he’s not one of the genre’s lost great plotters.  The characters are broad enough yet realised enough to provide a Christie-like level of familiarity, and it conforms to enough conventions and provides enough interest to pass the time.  Very pleasant, very enjoyable, and a great (possibly intentional) riff on how information is provided to the reader, but hard to recommend as anything close to essential.  I would love to know what anyone else thinks of those diagrams, though, and if you can recommend a Kennedy title please do so below.

Also, if you want to see a real life Real Tennis court, take a tour of Lord’s cricket ground in London — the one they’ve got there is brilliant.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Building (other than house) [it’s on the back, but I can’t find an image of it…].

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Rain Dogs from last week because both prominently feature a Medieval fortress.

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11 thoughts on “#228: Murder in Black and White (1931) by Evelyn Elder

  1. Hmm think this is one I should avoid. You know how much difficulty I had with Penny and his diagrams… I have often wanted to try Kennedy but never found any copies of his work to try cheaply. Do you think this novel is indicative of his work overall or more just an experiment?

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    • I would have no idea about this in terms of Kennedy’s other works, but the fact that it was the first of only three books published under the Elder name would imply an element of experimentation. Someone who has actually read him would have to confirm or deny that, though.

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  2. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I was going to say that I intend to give this a miss, because of its average rating – and then I realised that I spotted Carr’s ‘The Waxwork Murders’ at a second-hand bookshop, and pounced on it with glee. And it only got 3 stars too…

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    • Good point, I’d forgotten about that (mind you, I’ve forgotten almost everything about that book…). I might go and have a look through to see what his solution was, maybe that’ll give an idea of whether he’s worth tracking down. Many thanks!

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  3. Best of the Milward Kennedy books, IMO, is MURDERER OF SLEEP. I haven’t read any others as good. He has a humdrum air to him as he is almost exclusively interested in the puzzle and he ought to appeal to a whole lot of you for that reason. HALF MAST MURDER is one of those mystery novels concerned almost exclusively with the how and why of the murder and not really concerned with the characters as people at all. It’s another impossible crime, a book fairly easy to find in the used book market, but not at all on the level of MURDERER OF SLEEP. Recently I managed to buy a cheap copy of the scarce mystery CORPSE IN COLD STORAGE. It received high marks from Martin Edwards (who has many reviews of Kennedy books on his blog) and Curt Evans so I’m hoping for good things. I’ve planned to read it in May.

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    • Much appreciated, thanks, John. Half Mast Murder is the sole Kennedy available on Kindle at present, though it seems the edition is a high-priced cheap one, if you follow me.

      I’d be interested to read something more by him, his character work is very reminiscent of Christie here and that can’t be a complete fluke. I’ll make a note of Murderer of Sleep and hope to stumble across it at some point. In the meantime, let’s hope Corpse in Cold Storage is good enough to warrant a write-up at Pretty Sinister! I shall keep an eye out for your thoughts, and assume that if none result then none were worth having.

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  4. Your comments on maps has me laughing – I’m part way through Carr’s The Mad Hatter Mystery, and the grounds of The Tower of London are pretty difficult to understand based purely on the scene descriptions. Fortunately, there are plenty of maps and pictures online that I can consult. Still, it would be nice to have a diagram as part of the book.

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    • Hmmm; that’s weird — all my editions have maps. Also, for future reference, Carr returns to that exact same part of the Tower in The Devil in Velvet.

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