Friday, October 25, 2019

Blueprint for Murder

Blueprint for Murder (1948) by Roger Bax* is a rare thing for me--an inverted mystery. I generally find it very difficult to enjoy a mystery novel where there is very little mystery. The blurb on the back of my edition tries to make it seem more like a standard detective novel:

Wealthy industrialist Charles Hollison is found bludgeoned to death shortly after his son, Geoffrey, and nephew, Arthur Cross, return from World War II. As the principal beneficiaries of Charles's will, both men are suspects. Inspector James, called in to investigate, thinks he knows which of them is guilty.

But we know from the beginning who the guilty party is (Inspector James is right). And a nasty piece of work he is too.

When we first meet Arthur Cross, he is on the run towards the end of the war. He has made his way from a Nazi concentration camp (wearing a German uniform, by the way) and is trying to put as much distance between himself and the Germans and the invading Russians as possible. When he's just about on his last legs, a kindly Polish man and his daughter take him in after listening to his tale of an escape from the camp which involved knocking out a guard and stealing his uniform. He repays their kindness by murdering them. And we get our first glimpse of just how cold-blooded he is.

Upon his return to England, both he and his cousin Geoffrey are welcomed with gladness by Geoffrey's father, Charles. Arthur's parents died while he was young and Charles took him in and raised him as if he were another son. The elderly gentleman offers them both shares in the family business, a comfortable salary, and a home with him if they'd like it. He also (inadvisedly) tells them that he plans to update his will, leaving the bulk of his estate between them. 

Arthur has no desire to kick his heels in a stodgy business job. He plans to live life hard and fast (and fun) and needs a large influx of cash sooner rather than later. He also has pressing reasons to leave Europe and head for somewhere more remote. So, despite unemotionally recognizing how generous and kind Charles has been (and is being) to him, he begins methodically plotting his death. His goal is create an unbreakable alibi that will allow him to do the deed and even be suspected, but give the police no way to prove him guilty. And he does a pretty good job--using a method and devices that I'd not encountered before in my murderous reading. Once the crime is committed, the second leg of the book is spent wondering if Inspector James will find a break in the impenetrable alibi.

But, of course, there is one little thing that Arthur didn't think about...and when that begins to fall apart, the last leg of the book turns into a thriller with Arthur forcing his cousin to take him by boat into a raging winter storm and help him escape to Holland. Geoffrey must find a way to scuttle Arthur's plans and save both himself and the girl he loves.

This is a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the plus side, this is a marvelously plotted inverted mystery and I want to give credit to Bax for giving me an inverted mystery that I could appreciate. Bax has given Arthur the means to devise what really looks like an unbreakable alibi. I began to think that he might actually get away with it. And I thought the means by which his plot unravels was cleverly done as well. The ending was exciting and suspenseful without being too over-the-top (especially for a mystery portrayed in my edition as a police procedural). Negative points: there really is very little of Inspector James in this and very little actual detecting going on. James does a bit of interviewing--but most of the work is done off-stage. And, for me, there was way too much time spent with this cold-blooded, vicious killer and watching him plot the murder of a kindly, inoffensive man. But, even though it's really out of my comfort zone, it's a darn good mystery. ★★

*Bax is a pseudonym for Paul Winterton, an English journalist who wrote under the names of Bax, Andrew Garve and Paul Somers

Vintage Golden: What (Out of Comfort Zone)
Deaths = 3 (two drowned; one hit on head)
Feb = author's birth month


J F Norris said...

I found a copy of this very edition at a Half Price Books near me several years ago and still haven't read it. Glad to learn that's its top notch. I think there are some brilliantly conceived inverted mysteries from the good ol' days and that you'd enjoy them just as much as I did. Two have been reprinted: Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts and The Ghost It WAs by Richard Hull. Two others are less easy to find: Shadow of the Wolf by R. Austin Freeman, Pattern of Murder by John Russell Fearn. the Fearn book is truly well done and you learn a lot about how a movie theater was run in the 1950s. You might be able to get a cheap copy on eBay. It's one of those paperback Linford Large Print books. Mine was only $8 and I got free shipping.

Bev Hankins said...

John: This really is very good. I've got Antidote to Venom (just haven't gotten round to it yet). I have to tell you Richard is hit or miss for me. I am definitely not the fan of his Murder of My Aunt that so many people seem to be. But if I get hold of The Ghost It Was, I'll definitely keep your recommendation in mind.