Face Value (1983) by Roger Ormerod

Last time, I discussed Anthony Lejeune's Key Without a Door (1988), second and last novel in the short-lived James Glowrey series, which began promising enough with the disappearance of a man in pajamas from the doorstep of his London home and an intriguingly-posed puzzle – concerning the titular key and absentee door. Regrettably, the book regresses from a bright detective story into an uninspired crime/thriller novel closing this two-book series with an open ending. Key Without a Door had nothing to recommend in the end and guaranteed to make an appearance on the annual round-up of the years best and worst detective novels and short stories under the latter. So needed something really good as a palette cleanser, of sorts, which brings me to a long-standing recommendation.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, was sufficiently tempted by my 2021 run of Roger Ormerod reviews to pick up the Ormerod's first Richard Patton novel, Face Value (1983). The book was published in the United States under the lurid title The Hanging Doll Murders in 1984.

Face Value blew John away like a shotgun blast, "rarely am I as thoroughly surprised by everything in a story as I was by this book," presenting "an excellent example of a modern mystery that honors the traditions of the Golden Age and still incorporates modern police technique, modern behavior and a motive that will never go out of style." John was not wrong. Face Value is the best of Ormerod's detective novels to date and perhaps one of the ten best pure detective stories from the last twenty-five years of the previous century! A mystery that not only upholds the values and traditions of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, but delivered something that can stand right alongside their best works.

Detective-Inspector Richard Patton, a widower of three years, is mere days away from retirement and dreaded a big case would present itself at the last minute, because it would be handed over to his successor, Inspector Donaldson – an idea he finds appalling. Patton whittled away his last two months on the force keeping a low profile and "dicker around with a couple of minor issues." So on the first of his last three days, Patton appears on the scene of an abandoned, burnt out car wreck and meets a young, imaginative police constable, Brason. A character who would not have been out of place in an E.R. Punshon novel and would go on to play an important part in the unfolding story as Patton got his first inkling something was brewing. A second problem is the return to the district of a notorious character, Clive Kendall, who received a life sentence for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Coral Clayton. Prisoners' Aid Association turned Kendall into a pet project and got him released after only eight years. Carol's father committed suicide and her mother moved away, but she has two uncles, Ted and Foster, who threatened to outright murder Kendell, if he dared to show his face in town. Patton finds a message on the window of Kendall's old bungalow, "THIS FOR YOU—BASTARD—>." The arrow pointing to a child's doll hanging by the neck from a tree branch. A report of a shotgun gone missing from a nearby farm only adds to the impending doom, but the most important of these minor matters is a missing person's report.

You may, or may not, remember from previous reviews, I referred to this series as the Richard and Amelia Patton series. Face Value introduces Amelia as Amelia Trowbridge and, two weeks before, she reported her husband has gone missing without a trace ("no suggestion of a crime involved—no foul play hinted"). So nothing to act on for the police, but now there appears to be connection between her missing husband and the burnt out car wreck. Amelia is the counsellor in the Prisoners' Aid Association who was instrumental in getting Kendall released from prison ("he's been my own special case"). These little threads get pulled together to form a dense, intricately-woven web when a man's body is found in a cottage on a farm called Swallow's End.

A body was found in the living room of the deserted cottage, head and shoulders against the cold grate, whose face was on the receiving end of a double barreled shotgun blast ("very little of the skull was left, just enough for the bit of hair to hang on"). The victim had his hands up to his face and "blast had shattered both hands on the way through, leaving little more of them than tatters of flesh clinging to the hones," which poses a problem in 1983 when it comes to identification. And then there's the locked nature of the cottage. I say locked nature as Face Value offers one of the oddest and original impossible crimes from the post-WWII era.

Firstly, the cottage is surrounded by tripwire, strings and old electric wire "looped over the trees, with rusty cans tied to the ends," to rig up "some sort of a warning system." Secondly, the rear door and windows are locked on the inside, while the cold weather wedged the unfastened front door solidly in its frame. Thirdly, there's a new, fist-sized hole in the living room window, but why are the broken pieces of glass scattered outside in the snow a patch about a foot square? Did the victim fire the first shot with the shotgun that was found leaning next to him against the wall? But why casually put it away like after emptying a barrel at an intruder without even reloading it? And the murderer could not have returned fire through the hole in the window. The victim was shot from no greater range than three feet, but he was found nearly ten feet from the window. This description barely does any justice to the simplistic complexity of the situation. It's like Schrödinger's cat, but with an unidentified body, who could be one of two men, inside "a locked and fastened cottage" that's not as locked or fastened as it looks. Or is it? A locked room mystery you should not read just for how the murderer entered, or exited, the locked cottage – only for that very same locked room-trick to take you by complete surprise. Not on account of that small detail of entrance, or exit, but how it dovetailed everything together with several twists and false-solutions before the truth is finally revealed. What an ending! Something truly worthy of Carr or Christie.

I can't tell much more without running the risk of spoiling the game, but, to give some you an idea, Face Value is the kind of detective story that at the time was just beginning to take shape in Japan and Western equivalents would not really appear until James Scott Byrnside picked up the gauntlet in 2018. Ormerod dashed one off from scratch in 1983 to start a new series. However, the irresistible comparison between Face Value and the Japanese shin honkaku movement is perhaps not so strange as they share the same quality: a clear and sound understanding of what makes a proper detective story tick and getting the people who devour them. That understanding mercilessly efficient used against poor, unsuspecting readers like John and I.

So while I can't tell much more about the plot, there's something else I can ramble and rattle on about.

Hercule Poirot pointed out in The ABC Murders (1936) how terribly revealing crime can be, "try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions." A reason why the Golden Age detective story is so varied is that they all approached the problem of the detective story in their own individual way. So you get Detection Club members like Agatha Christie and Gladys Mitchell who both wrote detective fiction, but in such a radical different way that they might as well take place in completely different realities. Not to mention Christie's preference for administrating poison or Mitchell's never explained obsession with drownings and water in general. I've now read a dozen of Ormerod's novels from which a fascinating, multi-varied kaleidoscope of personalized tropes and plot-patterns emerged.

I noted in a previous review how Ormerod utilized cars, moving or standing still, to drive the plot with a preference for firearms rarely discharged in traditionally-styled detective stories (shotguns, rifles and target pistols), but Ormerod had another unusual fixation – which turns up time, and time, again. Namely broken windows and shattered glass. For example, A Shot at Nothing (1993) also concerns a shotgun murder inside a locked room with a hole blasted through one of the windows from which Ormerod spun a great deal of complexity and two completely different solutions. When the Old Man Died (1991) is another locked room mystery with a broken window and, most originally, the shattered glass from a grandfather clock is all over the floor where the door opened. So nobody could have opened the door and left without creating a wide arc in the carpet of glass. An Open Window (1988) is another example of broken glass playing a part in the solution to an impossible murder. The Key to the Case (1992) has a variation on the broken window as the smashed front door provided the story with an excellent false-solution. There are other things that turn up every other novel like (ex) policemen too personally involved and toying around with clocks. Never with the same answers and results. So they're never repetitive. And the more you read, the more you notice there's a sort of rhyming quality to Ormerod's overall body of work.

According to When the Old Man Died, Richard Patton was on his first, unrecorded case around the same time David Mallin and George Coe were on their last recorded investigation (One Deathless Hour, 1981). Both stories deal with murders committed with a target pistol, smashed clocks and shooting clubs as alibis. Yet, they're nothing alike. Same goes for Face Value and A Shot at Nothing.

So to cut another long, senseless rambling short, Face Value toppled The Key to the Case and A Shot at Nothing as the best of Ormerod's (locked room) mystery novels and a haunting glimpse of what could have been had the Golden Age detective story persisted pass the 1950s. Highly recommended. Particularly to those who were less than impressed with previous recommendations.


  1. I've read this two years ago, and I think is his best. Recommended.

    1. Agreed! There are not many 1980s mysteries of this quality and hope to find more of them among his work.

  2. I always welcome more Ormerod reviews from you, TomCat, and thrilled to see you enjoyed this one! This sounds just great! Obviously I love Ormerod, and I'm happy to see more recommendations for books of his to read. TIME TO KILL and WHEN THE OLD MAN DIED are still favorites of mine, followed closely behind by the audacious and unpredictable (but also deceptively simple in spite of its scale) THE WEIGHT OF EVIDENCE. I have yet to read A SHOT AT NOTHING, and we know I didn't quite love THE KEY TO THE CASE, but hearing that somehow there's a novel that you can name his new best is super promising. I look forward to seeing how it sizes up to the other Ormerods (though I don't think it's a secret I have a preference for his alibi plots over his more traditional impossible crimes...)!

    Anyway, time to cut MY senseless rambling short... this sounds great, I'll read it right away!

    1. Oh yes. This one is something entirely different from the previous ones I raved about. When the Old Man Died and A Shot at Nothing are just throwbacks compared to Face Value. Having an understanding and appreciation of Japanese mysteries only makes it better as Face Value was years ahead of the shin honkaku movement. So your review should be interesting.

    2. I really need to do another rambling post, one of these days, on the brief locked room revival of the '80s.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation. Per your blog, I know you're a fan of Roger Ormerod's books so I decided to give the author a try reading this one first. Normally I lose interest in a self-absorbed, tortured detective, but Patton was a relatable protagonist and I enjoyed this immensely.

    I smugly thought I had this all figured out: culprit, means and motive, but of course I got those wrong. The puzzle was well done as was Patton's reveal at the end. My copy had only 174 pages so was a quick read helped by Ormerod's lean but effective text. I look forward to trying more Ormerod in the future.

    1. Oh, yes, Ormerod packaged his novels as modern police procedurals and private eyes, but underneath they more often than not turn out to be true, classically-styled detective stories. So glad you enjoyed this one as reactions to Ormerod's rediscovery has (baffling) been somewhat mixed.