Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Snake on 99: Review

You know, catching a criminal's rather like playing snakes and ladders. You plod ahead, square by square; sometimes you get a bit of luck, and a ladder takes you up a row or tow. Sometimes things go wrong and you slide down a snake. It's the same for the criminal, but he has more snakes and fewer ladders than you do, in the end. And when he things he's nearly  through, there's always the final pitfall, the dirty great snake on 99, waiting to drop him right into our arms. ~Inspector Morgan

It took me about half the book to find out what the title, The Snake on 99, had to do with Stewart Farrar's detective novel. When I first spotted the cover at Half Price books last year, I almost passed it up--it kindof screamed Western at me for some reason. And then I saw the little "Chantecler Mystery Novel" logo on the spine and thought, "Hmm, what's this?" The synopsis on the dust jacket intrigued me enough to make me add it to the pile to take home with me. Then Rich over at Past Offences announced that January would 1959 for his Crimes of the Century feature and I was all set. Because my edition says "first published 1959." But...when doing a little sleuthing on the internet for any tidbits I could find on Stewart Farrar I discovered that 1959 is the first American printing but it was first printed in Britain in 1958 and I don't know if Rich will let me sneak it in...Ah well. It was a good read and let's get on with details.

So...Joe Archer arrives in London to start a new engineering position with his company. He takes up residence at a hotel cum boarding house. He quickly learns the ins and outs of his fellow residents. There's Geraldine Graham, a bit of drama queen who likes to play the '20s vamp; Frank Branson, a good-looking brilliant young City Editor who has his eye on...; Jane White, a lovely young lady of eighteen who always sees the best in everyone. But Frank can make little inroads with Jane because there's also her father Anthony White who is ultra-possessive and jealous of any attentions paid to his only child as well as a rival in the person of Peter Knapp, a photographer with a sardonic sense of humor. Also in the mix is Gerald Hardy, lead reporter at Branson's newspaper. 

It isn't long before Archer joins Branson and Knapp in seeking Miss White's company (whenever "Daddy" isn't looking). Branson has the habit of watching for Jane to come home from her art classes and waving at her from his rooftop garden. Archer decides to steal a march on the handsome journalist and meets her at the corner bus stop. They decide to play a joke on Branson--sneaking round the long way and Jane only calls up to him at the last minute. Branson seems to take the joke well--Jane turns to share her glee with Archer and then the journalist jerks with apparent surprise and topples from the rooftop. 

Jane is devastated; she believes their joke must have caught Branson off-guard and caused an accident, but Archer is certain it was no slip and he makes certain to tell Inspector Morgan so when the police arrive. Morgan has a long history of summing people up quickly and he realizes that Archer is no fool and certainly has no reason to sensationalize. He and Sergeant Pitt soon find more motives for murder than you'd expect at your average boarding house--everything from drugs to blackmail. And yet Farrar makes it all fit together.

This was a delightful surprise. Farrar has a way with characterization that make this a great read. The interactions between Morgan and Pitt are fun and realistic--you can tell that the two have worked together for some time and know how to pull each other's leg without stepping on anybody's toes. They make a good investigative team. And the boarding house inmates are also well-drawn and given a fairly good chance at the spot-light, especially when you consider how short the book is at 191 pages. The plot is interesting, though I will admit that old hands at the mystery game will probably spot most of the solution before the wrap-up--I certainly did. But I was interested enough in the characters and finding out the fine details that I didn't mind. ★★★★

This counts for the "Any Other Animal" on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card and maybe (if Rich is lenient) for the Crimes of the Century feature.


Clothes In Books said...

Never heard of book or author, but this sounds like a good one: one to make a note of.

Bev Hankins said...

Moira, he only wrote two more mysteries before taking up the occult and witchcraft. I would love to get my hands on decent (and decently-priced) copies of the other two.