aka Christopher Caudwellpublished 1934
[Sadler, investigating a murder, is questioning the victim’s wife, and has called in her maid]
"The fact is, your mistress and I have had a little argument as to whether my memory is better than hers. It is about the dress she was wearing when this dreadful thing happened to your master. Of course I saw her near the garage, but she tells me that I was wrong in what I thought she was wearing." He leaned forward confidingly. "Now you can imagine that it wouldn't do me any good in my job if it was found I was wrong in my memory of what happened on an important occasion like that, so your mistress has suggested we settle it for good and all. Do you remember what dress she was wearing?"
Simpson's frank face looked pleased. "Of course I can remember. Why, I could lay my hands on it this moment."
"Splendid. Can you bring it here?" In the pause that followed Simpson's departure, Mrs. Mullins looked at him coldly….
Simpson returned with the dress. Laurence took it, looked at it closely, and then returned it with a smile. "I am wrong, I thought the dress she was wearing was—" and he described in his blundering, masculine way the dress Mrs. Mullins wore in the sketch he had just seen in the North Room.
"You certainly are wrong, Mr. Sadler," giggled Simpson. "Madam gave me that dress some time ago. Why, I wore it my evening out just before the fire."
commentary: Clothes detection! Always my favourite thing. Mrs Mullins’ alibi depends on her having been in the studio with an artist at the time of her husband’s death (all too reminiscent of the recently featured Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie) – and now the young investigator has demonstrated that the picture shown as ‘proof’ was actually painted some time earlier.
It’s just a pity that Laurence’s ‘blundering, masculine way’ with clothes is apparently shared by his creator – not the slightest effort to describe either of the dresses.
Clothes feature a lot in the book – the author really should have asked a woman friend to help out if he couldn’t describe them at all. The heroine Sandy Delfinage (great name!) often wears her riding clothes, ‘smartly-cut breeches’, and at one point is hilariously conspicuous while trying to do surveillance in London. And here is the painter of the disputed picture:
The artist looked more unkempt than usual. He was wearing a shapeless tweed jacket and a pair of dingy flannel trousers enlivened here and there by a smear of imperfectly removed paint.And there is a white science overall, and a vague attempt at a Bohemian party in Bloomsbury.
But apart from that this is a splendid book, with excellent characters, and very funny. It was recommended by my friend John Norris over at Pretty Sinister Books (yes, again - I read a lot of his recos… ) and he does give a very full and helpful rundown of the book, despite his lack of understanding of the role of Marmite in British life.
I have been giving some thought to the question of ‘humdrum’ mysteries, because of my recent panel on the subject at the Bodies From the Library conference. This book by normal standards is definitely humdrum – little-remembered author, a lot of careful detail and painstaking procedure, and above all an important alibi – it’s even called after the alibi.
But humdrum is the last word you would use. The book has great characters and is very funny and clever. There are many great lines:
Morphopoulos… had turned late in life from the business of drug peddling, with its dangers, to the wholly safe business of selling guns.
Dr. Marabout [who believes in witches, vampires and werewolves] was sued for the value of an Alsatian dog, which he had shot dead with sanctified silver bullets under the impression that it was Mrs. Murples. "Had I noticed the animal was not a bitch I should at once have realized my mistake," he explained to the court.
“Officer, you are offensive. You may, if you please, suggest that I am a liar. You may, if you will, accuse me of murderous assault. No one respects the police more than I do. But if you dare to suggest that I, an Overture, who have shot Peppering Coverts for forty years, could miss someone your size with a shotgun at a distance of five yards—then, sir, policeman or no policeman, I have half a mind to give myself the satisfaction of pulling your nose."This passage may need a gloss…
“God bless my soul!" the chief [constable] said reflectively, "we've strung natives up in bunches for less than that in India. Not, of course, but they've not had the laugh on us once or twice when the real murderer has confessed afterwards. Or would have had the laugh, I should have said; because, of course, they were beyond laughing.”It is clear in context that this is bitter satire and that the man concerned is plainly an idiot – it may also be relevant that author Sprigg was a Marxist.
There is a lot of business with a surprisingly modern-sounding timeswitch for a light (could this BE a more humdrum alibi detail?), - and people also send out for sandwiches for lunch, and worry about two-hour parking restrictions: exactly the kind of details that people think of as anachronisms.
There is an outrageous will very much like the one in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. And many many very funny scenes with distinctive characters, some very interesting comments on male-female relations, as well as an extraordinarily clever plot. The book is an absolute winner, and should be rescued from obscurity.
This author used the pen-name Christopher Caudwell, and for years I thought he must be related to one of my favourite late 20thC crime writers, Sarah Caudwell, but apparently not. Christopher St John Sprigg was his real name, and he lived from 1907 to 1937. He wrote a number of books of Marxist philosophy as well as crime fiction, and died fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
John Cornforth died in Spain two months earlier, and his beautiful poem Heart of the Heartless World, is on the blog here .
I love the portraits of William Orpen, so have chosen this picture (actually of Gladys Cooper) from the Athenaeum website.
The jodhpurs picture is from the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive.
Painter in His Studio is by Thomas P. Anshutz from the Athenaeum website.