Margot Bennett was a Scottish author, copywriter and scenarist, who produced a number of screenplays for the 1960s BBC adaptation of Maigret, but she also contributed short stories to Lilliput Magazine, wrote an apparently well-known science-fiction novel (The Long Way Back, 1954) and a number of now largely forgotten detective novels – two of which featured her short-lived series-character, Captain John Davies. When they were first published in the 1940s, Bennett was most earnestly praised and criticized by one of the Golden Age luminaries, Anthony Boucher.
Boucher reviewed Bennett's debut novel, Time to Change Hats (1945), in The San Francisco Chronicle (collected in The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47, 2009), which he commended for its "unobtrusively witty, sly and delightful" dialogue and characterization. But added that the plot has "the English endlessness of a Miles Burton" with "an anything but a watertight solution." Boucher thought her second novel, Away Went the Little Fish (1946), was "far better plotted" without losing any of the rich, delightful writing and wit of her debut.
What transplanted Bennett's Away Went the Little Fish from my never-ending wishlist to the peaks of my to-be-read pile, is its inclusion in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). My only problem was tracking down an affordable copy.
Away Went the Little Fish has long been out-of-print and secondhand copies have become scarce over the decades. So imagine my surprise when discovering that the book had been translated in Dutch, titled Waar bleef het visje? (Where Did the Fish Go?), as part of the equally obscure, short-lived Pyramide zakromans (Pyramid Pockets) series – published between 1949 and 1950. A copy of this translation was a lot easier to get than an original English edition.
The cover of my Dutch edition announces Away Went the Little Fish as a "humoristische speurdersroman" ("a humorous detective novel") and Bennett's comedic approach to the detective story is comparable with Edmund Crispin's satirical mystery novels (c.f. Buried for Pleasure, 1948), but with the clever, technically-sound plots of The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), Swan Song (1947) and The Long Divorce (1952). Yes, those also happen to be three of Crispin's most accomplished locked room mysteries!
Captain John Davies' personal file had been misplaced, presumably lost forever, in the maze-like archives of the Ministry of War and promptly placed in the wrong folder when it resurfaced, which assigned as captain of "a well-nigh non-existent army unit" stationed in Wetherfold – a stately village forty miles from London. When he arrived in Wetherford, he choose private quarters over been billeted in a wing of "the fifth oldest and second ugliest castle in England." And now lives in fear of the social tendencies of his landlady, Mrs. Cole. This was shaping up to be his life, for the foreseeable future, until an auction and murder humorously disrupted the routine of Wetherford.
Wetherford is buzzing with "the excitement of an approaching circus" over the estate auction of the contents of the home of the late meat pie king, Seward Corker, which provides the book with its most satirical scenes. Most notably the scene in which several "bargain-hunters" feverishly bid on a giant, mahogany-wood wardrobe that "could be sold as an emergency home in some places," even though they have no room for it, or an old set of copper fire-dogs. But the auction takes a turn for the worst when a bridal chest is carried out with the body of a local smut writer crammed inside.
Raphael Sands was a writer of ill-repute who "wrote 100.000 salacious, but very profitable, words" and achieved a popularity of "the most dubious kind," but his personality was as unpleasant as his books. So the person who split his skull with a tomahawk was seen by some as a public benefactor.
Captain Davies has helped bring a murderer to justice before and is hired by the victim's wife, Vicky, to keep her out of the hands of the police, which means he not only has to wrestle with his feelings for the beautiful widow, but tackle a cast of slightly cracked suspects – who all have their own peculiarities. Such as a missionary doctor, Miss Ida Clarke, who begins most of her sentences with "when I was in Africa." A reclusive scientist, known as "de Tijd-Techniker" ("The Time-Technician"), who's working on a secret super-weapon (a death ray or an antidote to the atom bomb). A local physician, Dr. Hooper, who wants to become Harley Street boffin specialized in rheumatism, because you can't cure it and that means there's bread in rheumatism. There's an old, scandal-prone army major, Broome, who's dragged into the case and the smart, 10-year-old daughter of Mrs. Cole, Jodie, who seems to know something about the murder. But she closely guards her secret.
Even the old-fashioned, less-than-perfect translation can darken the bright, sparkling comedic tone of Bennett's storytelling and characterization, but Boucher was right that Away Went the Little Fish is too long and too digressive. But "a good thing is a good thing" even "if there's too much of it." So, while the story is overwritten in parts, the various plot-strands stuck together nicely with a logical and satisfying solution with some good clueing. Particularly the titular clue of the fish, which actually cut the number of potential suspects. What about the locked room, you ask?
Away Went the Little Fish is a genuine locked room mystery, but the impossible crime aspect is a little underplayed. However, it's not without interest to the fanatical locked room reader/impossible crime fiend. Bennett provided us with one of those rare, but delightful, two-pronged impossibilities.
One of the impossibilities is the question how the murderer could have struck down his victim in full view of the visitors, on viewing day, before hiding the body and weapon under similar circumstances, but this plot-thread will eventually give the murderer away to the observant, suspicious-minded reader – some of whom will no doubt spot one of the tale-tell clues. Second impossibility is the possible, inexplicable entering, or exiting, of the house after it had been securely locked-up for the night. The solution to the problem of the locked-up house is of such blinding simplicity that you have to wonder why nobody else has thought of it before or since then. Not at all what I expected! A clever little locked room-trick and criminally underplayed here.
A note for the curious: when I finish a novel or short story listed in Robert Adey or Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders, I go to the back to see if they have anything to say on the locked room-trick. There were no additional comments this time, but Adey, or Skupin, only described one of the two tricks. So, even if you can't contain your curiosity, you still have to track down a copy to learn the locked house-trick. :)
So, on a whole, Bennett's Away Went the Little Fish is an amusing, if slightly overwritten, lighthearted take on the British village mystery reminiscent of Crispin's comedic detective stories with a dash of Michael Innes and a clever, well put-together plot. A highly recommendable mystery novel that deserves to be reprinted. Are you reading this, Dean Street Press?