"Everything's just a game to you, something to make a story out of."- Sgt. Beef (Leo Bruce's Case with Four Clowns, 1939)
Last year, I read and reviewed the two sole "Jay Omega" mysteries, Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) and Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992), written by award winning novelist Sharyn McCrumb. They are detectives stories steeped in science-fiction lore and very much off the beaten track. Fortunately, McCrumb's bibliography extends pass those two mysteries and I recently dug up one of her Elizabeth MacPherson novels – a humorous, inverted crime story by the title of Missing Susan (1991).
Rowan Rover is the bored, waspish guide of a Jack the Ripper tour and an amateur "criminologist extraordinaire," who tries to summon the ghosts of that long-gone East End London of the late 1880s for a few quid per person, but it's not enough to keep the wolves from the door. There are several ex-wives, tuition fees for his son and a smoking habit to sustain. So how could Rowan have turned down Aaron Kosminski's offer to subtly murder his cousin, Susan Cohen, during a three week murder tour in the south of England – in exchange for a nice fee, of course. Susan came into the family money and decided to retire at the age of thirty-six, which didn't garner much sympathy from either the family or Rover.
After this set-up, Missing Susan becomes a strange, but enjoyable, travelogue filled with the chatter of crime lore, detective fiction and the blood-soaked history of the English countryside.
The references to mystery-and crime fiction is perhaps what you'd expect from detective readers and amateur criminologists from the early 1990s: Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael, Jeremy Brett's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's disappearance and mentions of Dorothy L. Sayers, Colin Dexter and there's one tour-member who wants to buy a Reginald Hill novel that hasn’t been published in the U.S. yet. They also visit the area in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is set and the disappointing Agatha Christie exhibit in Torre Abbey, among other historical sights, but the snippets of "True Crime" were equally interesting. The murder of William II in 1100 is discussed, Dr. Crippen receives an obligatory mention and the Constance Kent case, known best today from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008) by Kate Summerscale, function as a story-within-a-story – as MacPherson and the tour members try to piece together an alternative solution.
Meanwhile, Susan Cohen isn't making herself popular and beloved among the group, especially with her would-be-assassin, as she's an easy person to dislike: a self-absorbed, draining personality without a glimmer of self-reflection. However, it took nearly two/thirds of the book before Rover began to make serious attempts at earning his fee. The result is a comedy of errors only Rover is aware of and only the reader can appreciate.
Missing Susan may come across like a snail-paced, overly chatty and fictionalized travel guide posing as a cozy mystery novel, which is a suspicion I began to harbor halfway through the story, but the ending is worth the grand tour of south England. I have read a lot of detective stories with takes on the supposedly "perfect crime," but McCrumb may very well have the best one I've yet encountered. It's delightfully ironic, beautifully understated and simply tucked away in the final pages of the book, which also has an interesting part to play for Elizabeth MacPherson – who manages to be both right and wrong about the solution at the same time.
Hell, it was infinitely better than the solution I pieced together based on Susan's expensive makeover and the outdated photograph in her passport, which gave her trouble at the airport. I assumed Susan had been "disappeared" before Kosminski approached Rover with his offer. The Susan on the murder tour had to be Kosminski’s accomplish in the murder of the real Susan, but had been convinced to take the tour in England to make it look as if Susan had disappeared abroad – while they (i.e. he) has an unshakable alibi. That would (at least) freeze the money until she was declared dead, but Kosminski wanted to kill two birds with one stone: if "Susan" dies in an unfortunate accident abroad, nobody will be looking for her body back home and he has silenced a potential danger. Rover could never put the squeeze on Kosminski, because it would be his word against his (and a confession to being a murderer).
Well, I was wrong. And my reason for jotting down my failure as an armchair detective is because this is the second mystery novel in a row that I liked, but doesn't give any room to discuss plot. It's a very talky, but fun, mystery with lots of sight seeing and crime discussions, but the ending is worth it.
P.S. the post-title is a reference from the book refering the tour group as "ghouls on wheels." They sure love their bloody history and murder stories.