Monday, March 7, 2016

House of Darkness: Review

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There is a popular and not ill-founded belief that, if you really want to start something, Cairo is the place to do it. And certainly this story starts in Cairo, on the terrace of the Continental Hotel, on a sweltering Friday night in June.

In Allan MacKinnon's House of Darkness (1947), Colin Ogilvie is on his way back to Britain to (reluctantly) return to civilian life after being demobbed at the end of the war. He's taken the long way 'round, spending time as a deckhand on a fishing smack, working his way though other odd jobs, and ending with a stint on an archaeological dig before landing Cairo. He's finally convinced himself to head back to seek a teaching position when he runs into his old friend Jerry Gray on the Continental Terrace. That's when life got interesting for Olgilvie again.

...there was something in his voice--a sense of strain almost--that made Colin look up sharply. Was he imagining things or had the atmosphere become suddenly tense?

Gray manages to subtly let Olgivie know that he's being watched and overheard and the two work a strategy so Gray can pass a message to be taken back to England. They play at old comrades in arms who have to part and leave the terrace together--apparently exchanging reminiscences, to cover the real message.

...get hold of Sir Alan Drexter at the Home Office....Give him the message personally. My normal line of communication has been tapped. They're on to me, and I'm going lay off for a while.

He follows up with specifics of a meeting he has observed and the players involved. When the swarthy individual who has been trailing them pops up at Colin's elbow, they make a hearty farewell with promises to meet up when Jerry gets leave at Christmas. Unfortunately, that it isn't to be. Jerry's body is fished out of the Nile River the next morning while Colin is winging his way back to England.

Unaware of Jerry's fate, Colin convinces himself that his friend had, as he was wont to do during the war, been over-dramatizing the situation. He'll pass along the message, as promised, but it surely can't be as urgent as Jerry let on, so he heads to his club first to get settled and have a shower after the long flight. During the ten minutes or so that he's out of his room, somebody (or bodies) comes along and thoroughly searches and ransacks it. It's obvious they were looking for something in particular--that's when Colin decides maybe old Jerry wasn't dramatizing after all. And Captain Stevens, the club secretary, is a bit concerned that Colin may be mixed up in something quite dangerous.

"Tell me, though, is it likely to happen again? I mean, they won't come back and shoot you, or anything, will they? It's not that I object personally, but some of the older members--"

Obviously, the message is urgent and Colin does his best to deliver as promised. But Drexter is out cruising along the west coast of England in his yacht and his deputy, Colonel Stanley is also quite plainly not answering his phone.

Things were happening--things violent, illegal, and mysterious--and he could do nothing about it because two blasted civil servants weren't there when he wanted them.

After several brushes with ruffians of all sorts, running into (quite literally) Stanely's rather beautiful ward, discovering that Stanley has been kidnapped, a quick confab with Scotland Yard and various top-secret Johnnies associated with the Home Office, tracking Drexter down, learning that Stanley has quite probably been smuggled off to a foreboding Scottish castle (the titular house), discovering a plot that threatens the British way of life, killing one villain in self-defense and being accused of murdering another in cold blood, and various other adventures too intricate to relate, Colin feels that he's had rather a full schedule since first landing back in England.
I don't know just what we may be running into, Ogilvie, but I've got a hunch that it's pretty big. Keep both eyes open, don't trust the Archangel Gabriel till you've seen his warrant card, and--good luck!

Naturally, the good guys come out on top and there's a rather exciting final adventure before a quick twist at the end reveals who is the real the villainous brains behind the dastardly deeds. This, quite honestly, is the most fun I've had reading a mad-dash, mystery thriller in a long time. Even though I had never heard of Allan MacKinnon before, I snatched it right up when I saw this near-fine Dell Mapback edition sitting at my favorite used bookstore--just waiting for me. What a delight to find such a cracking good yarn with engaging characters, apt descriptions, and humorous dialogue. I have a feeling MacKinnon had a great deal of fun putting this story together and it translates to plenty of enjoyment for the reader. A definite surprise favorite for March--and it may just turn out to be the overall favorite for the year. 
This fulfills the "Castle/Ruins" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. I am reliably told by the author that the main action takes place in a Scottish castle--the titular "House of Darkness."  This is also my second entry in Rich's March Crimes of the Century year--1947. Got any 1947 mysteries on tap? Come join us!

All challenges fulfilled: Vintage Mystery Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge, Travel the World, Cloak & Dagger, Outdo Yourself, 100 Plus Challenge, Monthly Key Word, Triple Dog Dare, Mystery Reporter, 52 Books in 52 Weeks, My Kind of Mystery, Mad Reviewer, Crimes of the Century


fredamans said...

Sounds like Colin is a busy guy. I'm not surprised, with all his adventures, that a mystery happens to unfold. Sounds like a good one, not very often I see you give 5 stars.

J F Norris said...

This is supposedly McKinnon's masterpiece. I went hunting for a copy years ago, bought a Mapback copy at the Printer's Row Fair and then promptly misplaced it. I'm hoping it'll turn up soon so I can read it. A rare five star from you is all I need to add it to the TBR pile for 2016.

Bev Hankins said...

John, this one is so much fun. That earns it the bulk of the star-value. The mystery-puzzle is perhaps not five-star material, but I enjoyed the book overall and didn't much care. It's been a while since I got such pure enjoyment out of a mystry.