Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Swing Low, Swing Death

 Swing Low, Swing Death (1946) by R. T. Campbell (Ruthven Campbell Todd)

"There's always a good murder around if ye know where to look for it," declares Professor John Stubbs. "It may be masqueradin' as accidental death or suicide," he solemnly adds, "but once ye start rootin' around ye'll find that it's murder."

There's nothing so obviously murder as a man covered by a curtain and hanging from a hook in front of a new masterpiece--both of which are unveiled at the grand opening of London's Museum of Modern Art. In the days leading up to the crime, those involved in the museum's opening have been having their troubles. Dr. Cornelius Bellamy, a pompous, self-proclaimed art expert has verified all acquisitions as absolutely genuine--including a newly found work by Chirico. Francis Varley, who knows his stuff as well but no one takes him as seriously because he doesn't proclaim his knowledge loudly and often, doubts that the work is genuine. And Jeremy Ambleside, who provided the painting, begins to get worried. Douglas Newsome, the museum's librarian, has had the keeping and filing of pictures of Chirico's works...but the file disappeared. Then the painting in question was vandalized. And now...Jeremy Ambleside is dead--on display for all those invited to the opening day activities to see.

Professor John Stubbs was invited to the gathering and (per usual) arrives late--but not too late to take an interest in helping his old friend Chief Inspector Bishop track down a murderer. What provoked the killer to display the body like a gruesome bit of artwork? Was it the unwholesome imagination of Mr. Carr, the "interior decorator" who thought sticking bits of rubbish all over the walls made some sort of brilliant modern art statement? Was it Newsome who knew that Ambleside would find something in the photos if the Chirico file ever showed up? Perhaps it was Varley or Bellamy for reasons connected to the vandalized painting. Or maybe dear Miss Emily Wallenstein had gotten angry enough over the money spent on the painting to do murder? Stubbs follows an unusual method of investigation that involves lots of drinking with the suspects and visits to the Yard's ballistic experts.

This story was very heavy going for just about the entire first half. There is an incredibly long and tedious build up to the grand opening of the museum and given my usual reading rate, it should not have taken four days to read 70 pages. But it did. And given my previous experience with Campbell (Bodies in a Bookshop and Unholy Dying), I would have expected this installment to live up to the blurb on the back that promises a "brisk, humorous narrative." It didn't. There are some humorous bits, particularly with the "interior decorator" Mr. Carr and his ancient mother--both of whom can put away great quantities of liquor without batting an eye. And Max, Professor Stubbs's right-hand man, provides some delicious running commentary on his boss and the events. But there isn't nearly enough to say that the narrative overall is humorous. And it certainly isn't brisk. Of the three Campbell books I've sampled so far, this is the most disappointing. I missed the witty narrative of the previous books and the motive and culprit seemed to me to be glaringly obvious--especially when a certain item is continuously harped on.  and 1/2

First line: Many months of intensive work and even more intensive publicity had gone to the making of it.

"Books," she said in a tone of disapproval. "Books, eh? I don't approve of books, young man. They just make mischief." (Mrs. Carr; p. 60)

"I ha' nothing but good ideas. That they don't always work out...is not me fault. It's jus twhat me friend Merrivale 'ud call the innate perversity of things." (Professor Stubbs; p. 110--Sir Henry Merrivale of Carter Dickson/John/Dickson Carr fame, perhaps?)

"Uhhuh," the old man grunted, "that's the trouble wi' doctors. They'll bet their boots on some things, but when it comes to anythin' ye really want to know they'll shilly an' shally...." (Professor Stubbs; p. 110)

After all, in murder one is dealing with human beings who are infinitely variable and unpredictable, while in his scientific work the Professor is dealing with plants with more or less predictable mutations and consequently results which are more capable of being worked out logically. (p. 113)

"My dear man," the Chief Inspector was amused, "what do you want with the ballistics department? I don't surely have to remind you that Julian Ambleside was strangled and hanged and not shot. You haven't discovered some new way of committing a murder by firing a noose or a pair of imitation hands at your victim, have you?" (Chief Inspector Reginald Bishop; p. 126)

This habit of carrying books about with me is one I have picked up from the old man, whose pockets are large enough to hold a small 17th century folio. No doubt it is a bad habit, but it has its compensations, as on occasions like this, when I am left alone with nothing to do. (p. 127)

Last line: I could have given him rats and ladders.


Deaths = 2 (one strangled; one fell from height)

All Challenges Fulfilled: Mount TBR,Vintage Scavenger Hunt,Medical Examiner,Cloak & Dagger,Calendar of Crime,Reading by the Numbers,Alphabet Soup,Alphabet Soup Authors,52 Books in 52 Weeks,Buzzword,TBR 23 in '23,Linz the Bookworm RC,Pick Your Poison,Mystery Reporter,

No comments: