Dead Lion by John and Emery Bonettpublished 1949
[Literary London: the narrator, newly arrived in London from the US, is attending the Critics’ Group dinner:]
The toastmaster now called upon Marcia Garnett, cinema critic for the Sunday Reviewer, and a woman stood up. In this gathering, where most of the women’s clothes had attempted too much and achieved too little, she was remarkable for scarcely seeming to have tried at all and for succeeding superbly. She wore a long suit of fine black cloth, cut no more obtrusively than a man’s evening suit, but certainly no less…. Her whole air was of careless perfection for which no-one seemed to have tried.
[Some time later – he is attracted to Marcia, but also very suspicious of her, and of her motives for entertaining him]
She wore black velvet with a scooped-out décolletage filled in with dark red roses and round her shoulders a scarf of fine black lace spangled with dark red and magenta sequins. The dress had a flamboyant simplicity, a sort of deliberate glamour that I should not have associated with Marcia, and as she opened the door to me there was an almost defiant gleam in her eyes while a trace of mockery curled one corner of her lip, though whether it were directed at herself or me I couldn’t know.
commentary: Monday’s book was a Ngaio Marsh from 1949, Swing Brother Swing, and I thought it would be interesting to look at another crime novel from that year (it’s like my own tiny Crimes of the Century meme, copying the one Rich Westwood does over at Past Offences). And this one, set in the same city of London, shows a world I am much more sympathetic to: Marsh’s tiresome toffs come off badly compared with the real emotions and the life of the mind of the characters here.
When I read another Bonett book recently – No Grave for a Lady – I thought that you could see the hand of the female half of the writing duo more clearly. This book I think suggests the opposite, with its male narrator and manly view of life: but the clothes descriptions surely do come from Emery rather than John.
The murder victim, Cyprian, is a mean and vicious critic who somehow attracts women’s love, and then treats them badly. He was something of a dandy – ‘flawlessly tied cravats, pinned with a pearl, his flowered waistcoats and narrow trousers cut with a point coming down over the heel’. The pointy-hem trousers are a new one on me. His death seems to be fully deserved, but series character Professor Mandrake, and the narrator (Cyprian’s nephew) go through the motions of investigating. A key feature is some compromising audio recordings that he encouraged the women in his life to make: these are on discs, and the various women really really need them back…
It’s a cheery jaunt through London life, with an event-filled trip to the countryside. One feature of life looms large – I mentioned his meme above, and Rich Westwood did this book for his Crimes of the Century meme a while back, and he sums it up well:
Rationing. The labyrinthine rules around shopping play a part in establishing an alibi, and result in Mandrake having to rid himself of two surplus ounces of cooking fat. Simon puts on his best Gary Cooper act in the same shop and comes away with ‘soda, washing-powder, soya-getti, and a tin of beetroot’ (which prove on later inspection to be ginger biscuits, cornflour, salad cream and a Canadian Christmas pudding). Soya-getti was new to me, and has a very low profile on Google, but turns out to be a pudding made of jam, bread, butter, raisins and blackberries (apparently).It seems that the correct thing to do in the shop is to say ‘is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask for?’ and you will be given the fake items above, slipped into your basket, and you find out later what they really are.
The political magazine New Statesman (popular then, still going strong now) is a subject of interest round here, and provides a clue in this book – a scrap of paper found on the body. This is mentioned sufficiently often that I wonder if the Bonetts really wanted Dead Lion to be called The New Statesman Murder. That’s how Professor Mandrake describes it, and then he draws his conclusions:
‘The fact that he read the New Statesman rules out quite a number of types which one would normally associate with murder. Such persons would very unlikely to commit a crime of passion; on the other hand, he or she would be more likely to do murder for an idea than the average man or women… We can assume that the murderer belongs to an intelligent minority, tolerant of everything except intolerance and complacency; and thanking God that he or she is not as other men. I take the New Statesman myself,’ he added helpfully.Later on, another character describes the best way to read the magazine – backwards:
‘starting with the advertisements, which couldn’t happen anywhere else, we move steadily back through the competitions, taking in a little film or dramatic criticism on the way to “This England”, after which we might just read the Sagittarius poem before taking our stand on the last paragraph of the London Diary, which quite often contains a joke.’I really enjoyed this as a picture of literary London recovering from the war, and it had some great characters in it.
Bev Hankin over at My Reader’s Block also reviewed the book, with this excellent summing-up:
Although this is not a traditional crime puzzle, it does provide us with a very interesting examination of the emotions, and several views on what love is.Top picture from Kristine’s photostream, from a few years later than the book, 1956.
Second picture also from Kristine’s photostream, from a few years earlier, 1945.