Sunday, October 12, 2014

Death on Allhallowe'en: Review

He could believe that people led stealthy lives, obeying strange impulses and beliefs. Though mystery could belong as much to brightly lighted streets and conventional citizens, there was something in an atmosphere like this, the chilly river mist and the desolate landscape. (p. 19)

Carolus Deene, that intrepid amateur detective who uses the same techniques to unravel mysteries as he uses to unravel history for the schoolboys at Queen's School, Newminster, is invited to investigate the odd "goings on" at a small Kentish village. If it weren't for his long-standing friendship with John Stainer, the rector of Clibburn, he would never credit the tales of eerie atmosphere, local witchcraft, and undefinable evil. But when Stainer says, "I'll tell you candidly--I'm frightened" he believes him. And he understands when Stainer goes on to say

Listen Carolus, I'm not a fool, and I'm not superstitious. Obviously I don't believe in black magic or witchcraft or anything of the sort. That's to say I don't believe in what they represent. But I do believe that there are people who practise the rites, and I think such people are dangerous.

Carolus also takes seriously the death of a small boy who may have seen or actually been forced to participate in one of these rites. So, he agrees to come and put his amateur detective talents to work on discovering the true source of evil in Clibburn.

His task isn't an easy one. Stainer has lived in Clibburn for three years and still hasn't truly been accepted as the new rector. The residents, as often seems to be the case--especially in fiction, don't take well to "foreigners" and Carolus finds it difficult to get the villagers to give him much in the way of information. Fortunately, he's adept at reading between the lines and often what they aren't telling him is just as instructive as what they do. 

He know he's getting close when the local "witch" tries to scare him off and then someone arranges for a telegram regarding the hospitalization of Mrs. Stick, his long-time housekeeper, to be delivered in a further effort to get him out of the way. Despite the trick, he manages to be present when a local figure is shot to death in a room full of people on the stroke of midnight. Once Carolus discovers how and by whom, he has the answers to both the boy's death and that of another, yet unsuspected, murder.

While I always enjoy Leo Bruce's detective fiction, Death on Allhawe'en (1970) is to be noted for its difference from the majority of the Carolus Deene books. It removes Carolus from the influence of both his domestic couple and the headmaster of Queen's School--each of whom constantly cast a disapproving eye on his detective antics while secretly loving every minute of the delicious tale when Carolus holds forth in the wrap-up scenes. We are also spared the frequently annoying presence of his schoolboy tag-along. What we get is straight Carolus on the track of village nastiness.

Bruce effectively describes the claustrophobic atmosphere of a village that keeps itself too much to itself while appearing to take local traditions and witchcraft much too seriously. Full marks for the mise-en-scène. Two things keep this mystery from being a full-fledged four-star read for me: 1. Lack of fair play. Carolus gives a fair impression of Holmes in the final scenes. He discovers vital evidence in a bank strong box, but keeps the clues close to his chest. There isn't any real way for the reader to guess what he's found and be able to fully understand the mystery. 2. The death of the young boy. While what really happened to the boy is not fully described (thankfully), I still get very squeamish when young children are involved. But that's a personal qualm--not necessarily a fault in the story-telling. ★★ and a half stars.

This fulfills the "Spooky Title" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.

Only someone born and bred in Great Britain understands the attraction of all we mean by tea, he thought; not just the infusion that we drink, but the happy associations of it, fireside in winter, sometimes in the garden in summer. He had a pleasant sense of being cosily shut in here from the murky evening and all that was forbidding and dangerous in the night. (p. 22)

"Yes, I think you've got me all wrong, old chap," he [Connor Horseman] said to Carolus. "You detectives see sinister things where none exist."
    If there was one thing Carolus disliked more than being called a detective it was being addressed as "old chap." (p. 29)

What is reasonable to one person may not be so to another. We all have our standards. (Alice Murrain; p. 37)

1 comment:

fredamans said...

Now this looks like a great read for Halloween time! Great review!