RogerBW's Blog

Corridors of Death, Ruth Dudley Edwards 26 August 2018

1981 mystery, first in the Robert Amiss series. After a meeting of a liaison group between government and industry, Sir Nicholas Clark, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Conservation, is beaten to death with an abstract sculpture called "Reconciliation". Everyone seems to have had a motive, and then another murder follows…

Everyong having a motive is of course one of the conventions of the detective story, but Dudley Edwards deconstructs it effectively by examining it: why should all these people, each of whom might be quite nasty but who aren't for the most part the sort to bash someone's head in, have plausibly murder-worthy motives against the same man? And why all at the same time?

Amiss was right. The man was clearly a Grade A shit. That was a relief. He couldn't afford to like another of his prime suspects.

Meanwhile, there's a setting which shares time and place with Yes, Minister, but in the end is slightly less cynical. Sir Nicholas may have been a horrible person, but most of the others are not; and the obligatory explanations of how the Whitehall Civil Service works, and what sort of people do well in it, are rather kinder than the broad satire of that other set of stories.

Amiss, Private Secretary to Sir Nicholas, is an amateur sleuth in the tradition of the novice thrown into the game, but he works with Superintendent Milton (formally in charge of the case) since they seem to understand each other.

"Not only, it seems, did you know the man better than anyone else, you are the first to have offered me anything other than pious crap. You can point me at likely suspects, help me to understand motives and explain to me what goes on in bloody Whitehall. And what's more, you have a cast-iron alibi unless you and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are involved in a conspiracy."

This isn't a story about timing and alibis, but a psychological consideration of motive and personality, so Amiss can provide Milton with the background information he needs, while Milton does the police-work and interrogation of suspects. The narrative follows their separate days, and then their evening meetings when they can compare notes and make further suggestions to each other.

All the people work as real people; even the minor background characters have something unexpected about them. For a psychological story, it's crucial to get the personalities right, and Dudley Edwards pulls this off superbly. (Though it's sometimes a little fiddly to remember which one's Nixon and which one's Parkinson.) Alas, the resolution doesn't quite work: there's a sudden inspiration, a thing for Amiss to find which nobody else has found (for no obvious reason), and a confession which for me doesn't fit the person we've met over the preceding chapters.

But in spite of that one significant drawback it works very well, and I'll look forward to reading more in this series.

Series recommended by Gus. Followed by The Saint Valentine's Day Murders.

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