"You picked a nice sort of playmate."- Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon (1941, Film)
Hooper "Hoop" Talioferro (pronounced Tolliver) is running an art gallery in Paris after having spent time in the Belgium Congo, where he provided assistance to a medical missionary in the clearing of several crimes (c.f. The Devil in the Bush, 1945), but the delivery of a two letters will be giving him a taste of the Gallic criminal.
Matthew Head's Murder at the Flea Club (1955) begins with Hoop honoring a request from the first letter to drop in on a friend of an old friend, Audrey Bellen, who does not leave a favorably impression him, however, promises to take her daughter Marie Louise out for the evening. The second letter came from Dr. Mary Finney, medical missionary and amateur snoop, informing him that she's briefly in Paris as a guest of the Sûreté.
They make an appointment for the following day at The Flea Club, a semi-public nightclub of which Hoop is a member with access to the cellar room where an archeologist, Professor Johnson, digs for the foundation of Ste. Geneviève de Fli – remnants of a chapel dating back to the 9th century. The entire floor is being dug up, section by section, which gives a nice touch to a night-club cellar filled with an odd mixture of guests ranging from gigolos to expatriates, but one of the excavation pits contains something that it shouldn't: the night-club singer, "Nicole," half buried under sand with her head caved in.
Murder at the Flea Club is not a linear narrative. Instead of telling the events from start to finish, Hoop feds the reader and Mary Finney bits and pieces until the final portion of the story. There's an Had-I-But-Known'ish tone in the opening as Hoop tells that both letters will involve him in a murder at the club and its solution with everything else largely consisting of filling up the gap of events leading up the murder, connecting the Bellen's with the denizens of the Fleas and fleshing out the characters – whom all seem to have one-on-one alibis. So yes. This is a very character-driven mystery novel and as you can probably deduce from this over written, but already dwindling, review, is that they usually leave me with less to say than the ones that are a bit heavier on the plot. And if the first mention of the victim's dying message is made after the 100-page mark, characterization might have gotten in the way of the plot just a little bit.
Having said that, I loved how Head wrapped-up the story. Mary Finney has planned a dinner with all of the suspects for a classic dénouement, but Monsieur Duplin is sure they already know the identity of Nicole's killer and prevented anyone from attending – in order to compare notes with Finney and test her acumen. This is why I think Rival Detectives are grossly underrated! They're great vehicles to deliver false solutions, twists and surprises – even in a minor way like here.
All in all, not a bad read that tried to retain a good plot in the face of heavy characterization, and there's a nice little twist given in the explanation, but it were mainly the opening and closing chapters that did it for me.