Adrian Carthallow, enfant terrible of the art world, is no stranger to controversy. But this time it’s not his paintings that have provoked a blaze of publicity – it’s the fact that his career has been suddenly terminated by a bullet to the head. Not only that, but his wife has confessed to firing the fatal shot. Inspector Penross of the town constabulary is, however, less than convinced by Helen Carthallow’s story – but has no other explanation for the incident that occurred when the couple were alone in their clifftop house. Luckily for the Inspector, amateur criminologist Mordecai Tremaine has an uncanny habit of being in the near neighbourhood whenever sudden death makes its appearance. Investigating the killing, Tremaine is quick to realise that however handsome a couple the Carthallows were, and however extravagant a life they led, beneath the surface there’s a pretty devil’s brew…
Adrian Carthallow is dead. Luckily amateur sleuth Mortdecai Tremaine is present. Tremaine is a retired tobacconist who likes to read romance novels (no, really) and he is intrigued by crime. Holidaying in the vicinity of Carthallow’s domicile Tremaine is the first one the panicking widow runs into. Why didn’t she just call the police on the phone? And what on earth happened anyway?
The wife confesses that it was a game, Adrian gave her the gun asking her to point it at him, and she unaware that it was loaded pulled the trigger accidentally. Later it turns out, that the Carthallow’s marriage had been under considerable strain for some time putting Helen’s story into question. As Tremaine is friends with the police inspector investigating the case he is allowed to trot along providing insights, and of course he is the one who solves the crime at the end.
Adrian Carthallow was not a very nice man. Certain parallels can be drawn to Agatha Christie’s “Five Little Pigs”also about the murder of a selfish painter. He was an arrogant womanizer and even dabbled in art forgery as the detectives find out.
There is certainly no lack of suspects, especially since most of the men seem to be infatuated with Helen Carthallow.
The Carthallows lived in a bizarre mansion of the kind that seems to be the requisite of mystery or horror stories and the setting is brought to life evocatively by Francis Duncan:
“The house called Paradise had been built and named by a millionaire for his bride. Just what had happened there few men had learned, but there had been whispers that there had been a lover in the case and it was an undoubted fact that the mistress of the house had been found lying with a broken neck at the foot of the cliffs whither she had apparently flung herself after leaving a despairing note that had not been made public.
Paradise had been closed and the millionaire had gone away – to take an overdose of veronal two years later after his fortune had vanished in a financial crash that had brought down a continental government.
For many years the place had lain empty and neglected, with the thick mists and the driving rain closing in upon it in winter when the seas leaped in fury up the grey cliffs upon which it stood; and with the summer sun beating down upon the rank wilderness of its gardens and peeling the paint from its doors and windows and the long wooden, verandah that looked out over the Atlantic.
It possessed so many obvious disadvantages. It was situated upon a great mass of cliff that must at one time have been joined to the mainland, but that was now separated from it by a narrow but deep chasm through which when the tide was high the sea ran noisily. It could be reached only by the bridge, which was not wide enough to take a car.
And, inevitably there was its reputation that made it a place to be avoided. The local people said that sometimes you could hear the thin, unhappy crying of a tortured soul that had been driven to self-destruction; only the sceptics sneered that it was odd that the sound was heard only when the wind was sighing over the cliffs and humming between the suspension wires of the bridge.”
As you can see, the writing is fine, the detective likeable enough. The problem is pacing. So Pretty A Problem would have worked better as a novella or even a short story. There is far too much time spent in the middle part of the book interviewing suspects. This is the kind of mystery where the detective is less of a Sherlock Holmes type running around gathering clues but more someone who works with “psychology” sitting around observing people, listening to them. While there are some clever touches about the solution, I wish we would have gotten there sooner.
So, not bad, not bad at all, just not exciting enough to make me want to gobble up all the remaining Francis Duncan books at once. I think I’ll try his Christmas mystery “Murder For Christmas” next.