Friday, 4 February 2011

Forgotten Book - Murder in Black and White


In 1931, Milward Kennedy wrote the first of three books under the pseudonym of Evelyn Elder. These are rare books, but the first Elder, Murder in Black and White, has recently been reprinted by Fender Tucker’s excellent small press, Ramble House. I strongly recommend Ramble House, who have brought back at reasonable prices a host of obscure titles.

This book contains, in effect, a ‘challenge to the reader’ in the Ellery Queen style, though it is not expressly described as such. The author says: ‘When teh reader has reached the end of Part Three he is in possession of all the facts needed to reach the solution of the problem. Such further facts as are introduced in Part Four (and they are virtually only two in number) are no more than confirmation of the theory which emerges from the rest of the book.’ So in a sense, Rupert Penny, whom I quoted a while back, was wrong in saying that The Talkative Policeman was the first English book to present this kind of direct challenge to the reader.

The novel shows us both the best and the worst of Kennedy. He was an intelligent man and a good writer, with a flair for ingenious ideas that suited the Golden Age. But somehow, all too often, the sum of the parts does not add up to as much as it ought. The narrative is strangely constructed, with far too many characters introduced too soon, and this becomes wearisome. I didn’t care about the people as much as I should have done, given that Kennedy was better at characterisation than some of his contemporaries.

And yet the idea of the book is very appealing. An architect and amateur artist, Sam Horder, takes a holiday in the south of France and becomes involved in a seemingly impossible crime. Real tennis, of which Kennedy was clearly a fan, plays a significant part in the story. Sam’s sketches are reproduced in the book – Part Two consists solely of them - and you can, if you care to do so, try to figure out the solution by studying them. He recounts the mystery to a friend, who plays armchair detective by doing just that. The sketches were actually drawn by Austin Blomfield, himself an architect and artist who went into practice with his father, an architect of distinction whose work included buildings at Lady Margaret Hall.

Overall, then, a book I found frustrating yet, from a historical perspective, very interesting indeed.

9 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Oh, that must have been interesting. I'm so glad that Ramble House is re-releasing some of these old books, which might otherwise have been consigned to complete obscurity. Uneven or not, they are a part of history.

John said...

Those drawings that help the reader solve the mystery remind me of the Kit Storm books by R.F. Schabelitz and his paramour Willetta Barber. Another set of books I own, but have never read. So sad, eh? Just loved the idea of a police sketch artist who solved crimes and the illustrations are sure nifty.

And a few days ago serendipitously uncovered my cache of Milward Kennedy books - I have three! Just added them to the TBR pile that grows ever more mountainous. Soon I'll need carbiners and ropes before reaching for another book.

Dorte H said...

I agree that in that period, writers sometimes focused on the mystery and clues, ´playing fair´, to such a degree that the characters never really turn into much more than chess pieces.

Good that some publishers reprint old crime stories so modern readers can have a taste of the Golden Age. And I remember that you mentioned the problem of some of your own books being out of print a year or two ago. I have noticed that some authors print their backlist in electronic versions via Smashword. Very low prices which attract new readers who - like me - prefer to begin from volume one before they move on to the latest story.

vegetableduck said...

I lost interest in this one in the first chapter. Lovely illustrations though. Milward Kennedy loved maps!

Kennedy soon moved toward the "crime novel" school, however.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, 'a part of history' is precisely right. And a worthwhile part, in my opinion too.

Martin Edwards said...

John, yes, I have a couple of those books - also unread, to my shame. I keep meaning to get round to them....
Which MK books do you have, by the way?

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, what can you tell me about Smashword? I admit I've never heard of it.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, yes, that first chapter was hard work to read!

Dorte H said...

Smashwords is a free publisher of e-books. Anyone can publish their books there (and I can see Nigel´s is also there, and cheaper for me than from Amazon because their shop is smaller so no VAT).

My venture has cost me nothing whatsoever, and Smashwords only keeps 15% of the sales price.

If the layout of the book is of good quality, it may be found and sold by Amazon also.

http://www.smashwords.com/