"Ye, against whose familiar names not yetthe fatal asterisk of death is set..."- H.W. Longfellow (Morituri Salutamus, 1875)
Christianna Brand called her "the funniest lady you ever knew," Carolyn Hart listed one of her books among her five all-time favorite mystery novels, The Times Literary Supplement juxtaposed her with satirist Evelyn Waugh and with The Asterisk Club she breathed life into one of the most absurd and amusingly unbalanced assortment of characters that ever graced the pages of a detective story. This now shamefully neglected mystery novelist was Pamela Branch.
By all accounts, Pamela Branch must have been a delightful human being whose personal motto probably was, "if there be humor here, it's dark, and you may need a flash of light to see it," which is a sentiment that runs through out her work – especially in her firs novel, The Wooden Overcoat (1951). In it, she introduces a club more out there than the Diogenes Club and plagued by far more unpleasantries than the Bellona Club!
Founded by Clifford Flush, The Asterisk Club can boost to be one of the most exclusive fraternities in existence and you literary have to wring someone's neck to qualify as an aspirant member. Well, that is if you were able to hoodwink a jury into letting you off the noose. Yup. The ritzy, exclusive club moonlights as a refuge for wrongfully acquitted murderers and their newest associate is one Benji Cann, who bumped off his mistress and was astonished when hearing the jury proclaim him to be innocent, but they are strapped for vacant rooms at the club – so he's temporarily quartered at the rat-infested dwelling of their next door neighbors as paying guest.
Their neighbors, two artistic couples, Hugo and Bertha Berko and Fan and Peter Hilford, have, at first, no idea who they are taking into their home or with whom they made a deal, but the truth begins to settle in around the same time as the rigor mortis sets into the limbs of their lodger – and they collectively decide to dump the body. Because that's the first thing you think of when finding a stiff you are not responsible for. Hilarity ensues as Murphy's Law runs rampant during their futile attempts at dumping the bodies they rapidly accumulated over the course of the story.
A novel whose focal point are a band of murderers, who unjustly escaped the strangling clutch of the hangman's rope, with one or two corpses tossed in, who are the brunt of many of the jokes in the book, is perhaps not suppose to be this funny or endearing, but it's a physical impossibility to keep that mask of stern disapproval from slipping from your face when, for example, reading the "picnic" chapter.
Meanwhile, at the Asterisk Club, the members are aghast as they secretly observe the amateurish bungling of their next door neighbors, but then again, what can you expect from a bunch of first-time offenders – and they come to the inevitable conclusion that it's time for the professionals to show them how to dispose of those pesky human remains. More hilarity ensues!
As a detective story, it's less successful than as a ghoulish comedy of manners, but not bad on a whole – and who cares, anyway, when you're having this much fun, right? But to be honest, it's only the motive that really poses a problem here. It's impossible to anticipate. On the other hand, Branch planted a few simple, but very subtle, clues and hints that would've told me who the killer was, but they passed me by unnoticed and I appreciated the hidden symbolism that went with it – which, again, was dark and somewhat twisted.
I think a good description of this book would be a sanguinary comedy of manners, comparable to The Addams Family on a rampage, but also manages to spin a decent plot in the background.
It actually made me wonder why Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey (only know her from reputation) were elevated to Crime Queens, but Christianna Brand, Gladys Mitchell and Pamela Branch are ignored – when they were arguably better novelists than their more famous contemporaries. I find Brand and Mitchell (and now Branch) much more rewarding and their plots are a lot richer.
Shortly put, if Craig Rice was the Queen of Screwball Comedy than Pamela Branch was the Gentlewoman of Gallows Humor, both of who wrote wickedly funny murder mysteries, which, sadly, have gone out of favor with a mainstream reading audience. Thankfully, there are still publishing houses, like the invaluable Rue Morgue Press, who safe authors like these two literary jesters from being swallowed by The Nothing – or, as it is know around these parts, biblioblivion.
Note for the curious: The Wooden Overcoat was adapted in 2007 by Mark Gatiss (of Dr. Who and Sherlock fame) as Saterday Play for BBC Radio 4.
Bibliography (all of them reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press):
The Wooden Overcoat (1951)
Lion in the Cellar (1951)
Murder Every Monday (1954)
Murder's Little Sister (1958)