Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sleep No More: Review

I had written about Margaret Erskine in the past for the Crime Fiction Alphabet community meme sponsored by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise (which reminds me--what with vacation and all, I need to post letters F & G for this year's round).  At the time I wrote:

Margaret Erskine (1901-1984) was the pseudonym of Margaret Wetherby Williams. Her mysteries feature Inspector (later Chief Inspector) Septimus Finch of London's Metropolitan Police. Although some editions of her books were packaged as gothic romance (scared looking, pale women running around in filmy looking nightgowns in front of forbidding houses), she wrote pretty straightforward British mysteries Not quite in the ranks of Christie, Sayers, Marsh or Tey, her mysteries are nonetheless entertaining. Sometimes horrible things happen in her stories, but they are definitely Golden Age in spirit and most of the horrible things happen off-scene.

When I wrote the original post, I had read seven of the Finch series--all of them pretty straight forward mysteries...although at times a bit vague in the denouement.  Mainly about whether the culprit would receive their just desserts. So, when I picked up Sleep No More (marketed as "An Inspector Finch Gothic #6), I fully expected another in the same vein.  Well, sortof.  Once Inspector Finch arrives on the scene, there is a fair amount of straightforward detecting that goes on, but that is sandwiched in between a very atmospheric and Gothic intro (about four chapters worth) and a very bizarre explanatory section with leftover Gothic bits sprinkled liberally about in the detection.  We have young women screeching over "headless" intruders, disappearing paperweights and daggers, and an elderly member of the household who creeps about on cat feet and pops up when least expected.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that I wasn't enjoying the atmosphere.  I was.  For 90-some% of the book, Erskine managed a very nice balance of Gothic atmosphere with straight detection.  Everything was going along swimmingly until the end.  And that's where she lost me. But....let me tell you about the plot first.

Loretta Stourbridge is planning on getting married...for the third time.  She called her second husband's family together to celebrate the happy event.  Happy for her because she's finally found a man wealthy enough to make getting married again worthwhile and happy for the family because that means that nephew John Nesbitt will gain possession of the family home and various other Stourbridge relations will finally receive their inheritance.  So, it would seem that it is in everyone's best interest that the marriage plans be supported and encouraged.

But someone didn't agree.  Anonymous letters are sent to Loretta's son and sister-in-law--the two people most likely to put a stoke in Loretta's wheels--and they crash the party.  Also invited to celebrate Loretta's engagment is Horace Emery, long-time family friend and solicitor.  During the evening's festivities it becomes apparent that something is on his mind.  But he doesn't get a chance to tell anyone what it might be.  By morning, he is dead and Inspector Finch arrives on the scene to refute the family's claims that Emery was killed by a) a burglar or b) a headless intruder.  The butler will be attacked and Aunt Alice (Loretta's sister-in-law) will be next on the murderer's list before Finch can put together all the clues and capture the villain.

And so...what bothered me about the ending (without giving away the solution)?  Just this--while I was ready to buy into who the villain was, Finch absolutely lost me when he was explaining why s/he suddenly became homicidal.  I may just be a little slow on the uptake on this one but I do not get it.  If anyone out there reads (or has read) this I would love to discuss a certain passage with you.  It throws everything off for me because it doesn't read right to me.  Maybe it's an editorial problem and not a plot construction problem.

The mystery is good.  The atmosphere works well without being too over-the-top. There are few times that Erskine tells more than she shows when it comes to the characters and their movements and reactions.  But overall a good, solid three-star outing.

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