Summoned by a distant relative to a secluded family pile, a young(ish) man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as money-hungry relatives, murder, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways No Flowers By Request takes the exact same ingredients as The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head — vast swathes of it will appear ominously familiar — and plays perfectly in the 1937 tradition that Rich has got us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals? And is it any good, after the failure of Jonanthan Latimer’s stirring of these same ingredients?
A little charm goes a long way – ask any bank teller or helpline operative, or indeed any fan of Golden Age crime fiction. Because, while a lot of absolutely wonderful books came out of this genre at that time, the fact is that a lot of what was published then and is popular now adhered to a particular school of writing and runs on very familiar rails. But the key thing is that so much of it is charming without having to innovate, and once you jettison any notions about every single book from the Golden Age being a complete game-changer you find a lot of joy there. Which astonishingly back-handed praise brings us to my first (but the chronological second) Hildegard Withers mystery by Stuart Palmer, possibly the first book I’ve really enjoyed for a long time in 2016 even though it does very little new or surprising.
A car crashes on a busy New York street, but the driver is not in evidence by the time the nearest policeman reaches it. Far from having fled the scene, a witness tells him, the driver actually jumped from his car long before the crash. And sure enough, a body is found back in the direction of the car’s origin…though with a noose around its neck and clearly dead from hanging. This setup, I have to say, is very arresting, but also probably the last point that the book displays any genuine originality. The dead man is part of a wealthy family, there’s a fiancée and a cousin and an elderly matriarch, and yes you pretty much know what you’re gonna get.