What the hell? This blog — preserve of the expired author, occupying as it does a dusty corner of the interwebs free from contemporary scrutiny — has now featured two living authors on consecutive weekends. Clearly I’m courting popularity. Next thing you know, there’ll be a guest post by Ed Sheeran [please note: I have no reason to believe a guest post by Ed Sheeran to be forthcoming]. And this one isn’t even an impossible crime. Where does this road lead? Rave reviews of Cozy Baking Mysteries? Who even am I any more?
Erm, moving on.
This novel was brought to my attention by regular commenter ravenking81 for being cast in the classic Golden Age mould: eight guests and three household staff invited by an unknown host to an abandoned, secluded golf club for a tournament, and with the only bridge in or out destroyed in a storm people start to die…well, who among you wouldn’t be intrigued? Add its virtual unavailability — this is the only edition available in English, and not all that available secondhand (there’s currently a single copy on Amazon UK) — and the fact that it’s from a country that I’m pretty sure I’ve not read a novel of detection from before (author Reef is German), I was hooked. And then, reader, I found a copy. So how is it?
Well, pretty darn good, in fact. Alongside a classical 1936-set closed-circle mystery, we have a meta-awareness that pokes its head out just enough to alert you to its presence — chapter titles include Murder on the Links and Murder Gone Mad, one character is reading a Ronald Knox novel, and there’s an explicit name-check of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Views the Body — and then wisely retreats. I’m all for characters saying (in the fourth chapter of the book, no less):
“We are in the middle of a detective novel, or rather we are right at the beginning. Perhaps we are in the fourth chapter, Mr. Stableford? What’s missing is only the main point of the story — the murder!”
…but at the end of the day we’re here to read a straight murder mystery and so such clever-clever conceits shouldn’t intrude (those who like the idea of them intruding are directed to The Athenian Murders (2002, trans. 2002) by José Carlos Somoza, which might have the honour of being the most smugly unreadable piece of meta-awareness I’ve yet encountered).
The efficiency of Reef’s writing in compiling his detective yarn is to be admired, too. 163 pages gives us a well-realised bosky locale, a set of inter-connected characters, repeated analysis of the precise actions of the cast without becoming bogged down in tedium, and a couple of nice false leads — the knowing aspect of setting this yarn some 74 years prior to its writing is clearly not something Reef wants to hammer us to death with; it’s a knowing wink rather than a leering grin with waggled eyebrows and a tap of the nose every four pages (when the character called Dr. Holmes offers to be our detective’s Watson…what are you going to do except offer up the warm smirk that deserves?). If such compactness has a downside, well, there’s very little in the way of actual clues, exacerbated by one piece of withholding that’s a little unfair, and the characters never really emerge much beyond tropes, but that sort of feels era-appropriate and I’m willing to let it slide.
One key aspect of the plot might have the modern reader chuff-chuffing at such anachronistic mores, but I would direct that reader to, among others, Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window (1938), which made contemporary use of a similar idea. The idea of basing this around golf is also exploited in a very clever way; I had assumed that it would be used in one manner, and was quite pleased to see the quite different way Reef works the necessity of golfing into the plot (it’s not a sport I especially care for — hell, it’s not even a sport as far as I’m concerned — but my lack of knowledge and appreciation didn’t preclude me from enjoying the key golfing mechanism used here). This is no mere cozy that happens to use golf but could equally be about water polo or a cat-friendly bakery; I’d be interested to see if (and particularly how) the other books in this series — there are currently two more, untranslated — do the same thing.
A few stumbles in the translation result in things like “tonight” (meaning to my eye “the night we’re currently in” or “the night at the end of the current day”) being used where “last night” (“the night we passed through to get to today”) is meant, and the odd jumbled sentence, to wit:
Only when Crabtree had served the port and the claret, which had previously been drunk in large quantities, had begun to take effect, did a conversation develop around the table to which all the guests gradually gave their attention.
…but, well, find me a book with no errors, and this still made more sense to me than it would have if left in the original German. The assumption of the role of detective, the interviews, the gathering of the suspects is all so classically styled that it’s difficult to hold such infelicities against the book as a whole. Sure, my personal preference of a clever piece of retrospective reanalysis of a key clue — a.k.a. the moment where you go “Holy fucking shit, that’s amazing!” — isn’t met, but, well, this sits more than comfortably alongside the type of books it is purporting to ape, and we can’t all be Christianna Brand now, can we?
So, in conclusion, this joins Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (2016) as a prime example of contemporary authors demonstrating a savvy for the intricacies of classic detective fiction, and can be recommended to anyone looking for something both new and old to enjoy. Making such smooth sailing out of the artificiality of the GAD novel is difficult enough in these times, when the aim of crime fiction is to be more ‘relevant’ and realistic. But finding someone who loves the puzzle construct, and can make a good stab at it on their first attempt, gives me hope that Reef goes on to make even better on the promise shown here. So, well, if anyone wants to translate the sequels, that’d be grand!