Sunday, August 7, 2016

Murder on Trial: Review

Murder on Trial (1954) is Michael Underwood's debut novel and the first of thirteen novels featuring Inspector Simon Manton (later, Superintendent). Underwood wrote these police procedurals from the mid-1950s through 1965. My previous experience with Underwood's work was primarily with his later series focusing on Rosa Upton, a London solicitor. I was delighted to discover this earlier series--especially since it begins so strongly.

Inspector Manton is sitting in the Old Bailey, watching with interest as the prosecution presents its case against William Edgar Tarrant for the murder of a young police constable. Many of the officers familiar with Tarrant are surprised that the charming conman had turned to violence--he'd never even been caught with a firearm on his person before. And, just maybe he hadn't done so this time. For as the prosecution wraps up their case and the court is dismissed until the defense can begin on the morrow, Tarrant makes a declaration before exiting the dock:

I'd like to say, my lord, that when I give my evidence tomorrow, I shall be forced to make certain disclosures.

Manton is curious to hear what Tarrant has on his mind. So are a few other people. But one person in the court room wants to make sure they never find out. And in a daring move  manages to shoot Tarrant in the middle of the Old Bailey before he can take the stand in his own defense. You'd think that someone would have seen who did it. But just before the shot, a young woman lets out a dreadful scream which draws the attention of the court. Apparently no one, including Inspector Manton, saw who shot Tarrant through the heart as he was making his way to the witness box. Why did Maisie Jenks scream out seconds before the gun went off? And why did a juror run out of the courtroom seconds after the victim lay dead on the floor? Who threw the gun down beside the lifeless body? Inspector Manton's investigation of these very baffling circumstances provides a new and ingenious mystery that unfolds at a fast pace.  

This really was a surprise delight--the courtroom scenes are well done and it was a very ingenious twist to have a murder occur right in the middle of a trial--in the Old Bailey of all places and right under the nose of a Scotland Yard inspector, the judge, and the jury. I don't know if this is the first time it's happened in crime fiction, but it certainly is the first time I've encountered this plot device. I had a sneaking suspicion on the who but, being unable to figure out precisely how, discarded my initial suspect and hoped that my second choice would pan out. No such luck. My one small quibble with the book is that Manton seems a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to two of the witnesses, but Underwood did need to build up a bit of suspense somewhere. Overall, this short novel (122 pages) was such a promising introduction to Inspector Manton and Underwood's crime fiction that I will definitely be looking for more of the series. ★★★★

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This counts for the "Blunt Instrument" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card as well as my first entry in the 1954 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1954 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

I actually finished this book on 8/2/16, but I've gotten a bit behind on my reviews....

 

5 comments:

fredamans said...

Sounds like a fun mystery!

bloodymurder said...

Never read an Underwood, which is off, me being a lawyer in a previous life - sounds good Bev! Thanks.

Bev Hankins said...

Sergio:

I first discovered Underwood back in the 80s (with the Rosa Upton series) and enjoyed those I read. Hadn't read anything by him until I found this book at the used bookstore in my hometown. I hope I can find more of this series because I think I'm going to like it even better than his later books.

J F Norris said...

I think I'd like this one. Very intriguing with some good unusual plotting. Adding it to my library hunt list. And hey -- you never need to explain you're behind on your blog reviews. We've all been there, especially when summer approaches. I still have four books dating all the way back to APRIL (!) that I have yet to write up. Who knows if any of 'em will ever bet done...

Bev Hankins said...

John--that's more my anal nature showing when I comment about being behind (hah!) on my reviews. I also know that the way my middle-aged brain works these days that details about my reading are falling out of my head as I write. I'm currently three reviews behind...well, two and a half. I just need to finish the one I'm working on.