RogerBW's Blog

Give a Corpse a Bad Name, Elizabeth Ferrars 25 February 2021

1940 murder mystery in rural England. Anna Milne, the local Mysterious Widow, comes into the police station to report that she's run over and killed a man. As the investigation progresses it starts to look as though this was no accident; but ex-journalist Toby Dyke suspects the police are on the wrong track.

Of course, the setup is a dated aspect in itself: the idea that you might casually kill someone while driving in the dark, and everyone would assume that this is just the kind of thing that happens. If it weren't for the idea that it might have been deliberate, it seems that nobody would think any more of it.

Although the book gets off to a slow start, it is at least in service of the story: even the identification of the corpse is far from certain, and while Ferrars sometimes feels as though she's struggling with a cast that's just slightly too large she manages to avoid the particular flaw of many mystery writers in which each suspect has only a single sin, and once that sin is uncovered everyone accepts that they can't also be the murderer. These people are rather more complex, with things they don't want to talk about and preferred narratives that they want to encourage.

‘Then I tell you, you can believe me, that woman's doing something—’ Suddenly Martha's tense face reddened. She looked down at the ground and finished in a much less certain voice: ‘She's doing something she ought not.’

‘And that,’ said Toby sternly, ‘is what you call not mincing matters.’

Dyke himself, and his mysterious friend George, don't even look like protagonists at first; and while in most of these stories one of the two would be a complete idiot to have the reasoning explained by the other, theirs is more of a partnership of equals, with George spotting things that Toby misses and vice versa.

The resolution is largely satisfying, with an explanation of events that matches the psychology of the villain, though a late twist doesn't entirely convince. As in many of Ferrars' later books, the solution of the crime is the end of things; there's no resolution to the emotional plots that have been going along in the background.

Perhaps it's more interesting now as an example of what writers who weren't the Big Four were doing with the basic mystery framework as the Golden Age was coming to an end, but there's certainly still entertainment to be had here.

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Series: Toby Dyke | Next in series: Remove the Bodies

  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 01:24pm on 25 February 2021

    1940?

    In war-time blackout it was the sort of thing that happened.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:31pm on 25 February 2021

    Possibly - but there's no mention of the war.

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