RogerBW's Blog

Slight Mourning, Catherine Aird 22 November 2016

1975 detective fiction; sixth of Aird's novels of Inspector Sloan and Constable Crosby. Bill Fent, local landowner, died when his car hit another at a notorious corner… but he'd have been dead before morning anyway, from the poison in his system.

This is a good solid mystery of the old school, and I don't mind admitting that I didn't spot the solution. The Fents have a money-poor estate, but can't sell any of the land for development unless the owner and heir can agree to break the entail… but the heir wasn't interested in cooperating, though he's ready enough to talk about his plans now. And the next heir just happens to be on the scene too. The widow certainly knows more than she's saying. Then there's everyone else who was at the fatal dinner party; but they all ate the same food, and nobody else came down with anything.

"Give me a straightforward manual strangulation any day of the week. At least you do know where you are then."

But while I might quibble about whether some of the clues were properly given to the reader, I enjoyed this book mostly for its descriptive prose and characterisation: not so much of Sloan himself, who's mostly a neutral viewpoint character, but of everyone else, like the pathologist who spots the poison:

"The interesting thing about the liver," began Dr. Dabbe in a hortatory tone, "is that—I say, Inspector, your constable's gone a very funny colour all of a sudden. Are you feeling all right, boy? Hey, Writtle, catch him before he falls. Here, put him on this chair. Had we better put his head between his knees, do you think?" he asked anxiously. "I haven't had a live patient in thirty years, you know … never did like 'em when they could answer back. Wonder what could have upset him …" The pathologist peered round the hospital laboratory, which was lined from floor to ceiling with gruesome specimens, saw nothing untoward, and took another look at Crosby. "Feeling better now? Good. Now, Sloan, where was I?"

and the village biddies:

"Oh, no. [The doctor] leaves the number where he is on the machine for the patient to ring direct if it's urgent. I know that because [his wife] doesn't like it. It means that anyone in the village can ring up and find out where they are for the evening."

"Poor girl," said Miss Paterson dryly. "Does she still imagine that they wouldn't know otherwise?"

"She's from London. I don't think she knows much about the country yet."

and indeed the clerk of the court where Fent served as a JP:

"Much crime over your way?"

"Not crime exactly," said the clerk expansively, "but we're the back door of Society's stables and that's where you see the breeder's mistakes, isn't it?"

Really the only misstep is the woman whose principal characterisation is that she's fat, and this is assumed to tell us everything we need to know about her. Ho hum.

Although the overall form is a police procedural, the book could have been set in the 1930s without too much alteration; the main things marking it as of its time are the disrespectful Constable Crosby, and Sloan's concern about guns in the hands of criminals. Pregnvayl gur hygvzngr ernfba sbe gur zheqre jbhyq svg orggre gura guna ng gur qngr bs choyvpngvba; V jnfa'g ragveryl pbaivaprq ol vg, rira nf fbzrbar jub fcraqf fbzr gvzr jvgu uvf urnq va gung ren.

But even with its minimal length, less than 50,000 words, and fairly abrupt ending, the book holds up well; I enjoyed the split timeline at the start, set during the funeral service interspersed with memories of the events leading up to it, and Aird generally writes in a style I found both pleasant and enjoyable.

I read this for Past Offences' 1975 month, and plan at some point to read more in the series. Followed by Parting Breath.

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