"I have had too much experience of life to believe in the infallibility of doctors."- Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter," from The Thirteen Problems, 1932)
William Underhill was the man behind an, until recently, long-forgotten and obscure pseudonym, "Francis Duncan," which was plastered across the front-covers of roughly twenty detective-and thriller novels – mostly published between the late 1930s and early 50s. Duncan employed two specific series-characters, Peter Justice and Mordecai Tremaine, but they slipped from the public conscience not long after their creator retired from writing. They remained all but forgotten until very recently.
Last year, Random House, under the banner of their Vintage Murder Mysteries, which also includes reprints of Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Gladys Mitchell, published a brand new edition of Duncan's Murder for Christmas (1949). It was the second entry in the short-lived Tremaine series and was warmly received by readers, but, at the time, nobody really knew anything about the author. Even the publisher was unable to find any biographical information.
As reported in this article, the publisher send out a call for information and they received an answer when Duncan's son spotted a copy of Murder for Christmas at his local bookstore. What a surprise that must have been!
So now they had an actual name and a back-story for the author, which was put to good use for their next spate of reprints and this run seems to encompass the remaining titles from the Tremaine series – all of them wrapped in beautiful, colorfully illustrated book-covers. Yes, the pretty colored covers is what really attracted my attention to Duncan. What can I say? I may be autistic. Anyway...
I decided to sample one of his mystery novels and ended up settling for the fourth one in the series, entitled In at the Death (1952), which had a tantalizing synopsis. And the plot definitely has an interesting take on the figure of the nosy, meddlesome amateur snoop.
Mordecai Tremaine is a retired tobacconist and a sentimental soul with a weakness for romance fiction, but the elderly gentleman also acquired "a reputation as a solver of mysteries" and Chief Inspector Jonathan Boyce, of Scotland Yard, once described him "as a murder-magnet" - which could very well be the first time this term was used to describe an amateur detective. There is, however, one difference between Tremaine and his colleagues: Boyce was able to use the reputation of his friend to convince the Commissioner to have Tremaine "accompany him on his next case." So he can watch an official police investigation from the start in "the role of unofficial observer."
This agreement is pretty much the setup for In at the Death, which begins with an interrupted game of chess between Tremaine and Boyce. The telephone call summons them to the seaside town of Bridgton, but first, they have to collect "the murder bag" from the offices of Scotland Yard. As is told in the first chapter, there's always a murder bag packed and ready at the Yard. The content of each bag can be termed as "the first-aid equipment of detection," but, sadly, this interesting tool of the professional police-investigator was soon forgotten about by the author.
Tremaine was initially thrilled and excited when he saw the bag and assumed the tools in them would be used as a contrast to the woolgathering method of the amateur detective. Unfortunately, this was not the case, but still a very minor blemish on an otherwise fairly solid plot.
The plot concerns the sudden and brutal death of a local doctor, Graham Hardene, who was found in the hallway of an empty, derelict house by a patrolling police-constable. Dr. Hardene was murderously struck on the side of the head with a lump of stone and this suggested to the local authorities that murderer just might be the internal tramp of crime-fiction, but soon the "highly satisfactory ingredients" of "an interesting murder" began to manifest themselves to Tremaine and Boyce.
Why was the doctor carrying a firearm? Who lured him to the deserted house with an emergency call? What frightened his receptionist and what did his housekeeper refuse to tell the police? Can the motive for his murder be found in his recent meddling in local politics, which put him in direct opposition with one of the town's most prominent citizens? What role do the crabby patient, the mysterious sailor and the cub-reporter play in the whole affair? And is there a link between the death of Dr. Hardene and two previous, seemingly unrelated and unsolved, murders in the district? Questions, questions, questions!
These questions are, largely, answered in a process of elimination as Tremaine and Boyce gather information and talk with, mostly, unwilling participants in the case. But, one by one, they scratch names and potential motives from the list and the only black mark against the story is that a vital piece of information, regarding the back-story of the doctor, is only given in the final quarter of the book – which seriously hampers the readers' ability to arrive at the correct solution before the halfway mark. Once you know the back-story of the victim, you should be able to identity the guilty party. Although the suggested false-solution, towards the end, which suggested an interesting, but ultimately disappointing, least-likely-suspect, can easily throw one off the scent again.
So, plot-wise, In at the Death is not a picture-perfect detective story, but still good enough to not disappoint and technically still qualifies as a fair-play mystery. But, again, some of the information should not have given at such a late stage in the story.
However, the best aspects of the book were definitely the solid story-telling, setting and the kind character of Tremaine. Duncan knew how to spin a yarn and conjured up a peculiar atmosphere with the backdrop of the story, which is "a fascinating mixture of the old and new" of "the romantic and the practical" typical of old places that became thriving (industrial) towns – showing the relentless change modern life has wrought on the developed world in the post-WWII world. However, modern readers will find that the town of Bridgton still has some of those delightful, old-fashioned remnants, such as tradesmen (i.e. milkmen and bakers) making home deliveries, which adds considerable charm to the overall story. Tremaine is simply a kind, likable character who has a special affinity for young, happy couples. He somewhat reminded me of Agatha Christie's Mr. Satterthwaite.
So I did not regret this gamble at all and will definitely return to this series in 2017. The plot descriptions of So Pretty a Problem (1950) and Behold a Fair Woman (1954) still hold my interest. As do the bright, pretty colors of their cover illustrations.