RogerBW's Blog

Death in Botanist's Bay, Elizabeth Ferrars 12 August 2022

1941 murder mystery. The famous botanist Edgar Prees tried to hurl himself off a cliff and was prevented; the next morning he went into work as usual. Where he was promptly found dead. US vt Murder of a Suicide.

This is a very claustrophobic book: there's a small cast, and the action is limited to a small seaside town, and sometimes more limited by bad weather. (The setting is implicitly pre-war; there's no mention of international tensions, except for a suggestion that Communists might be responsible for some of the skulduggery, and that idea is never taken seriously.)

Down a turning beyond the herbarium was the boarding-house in which both Dan and Gordon had rooms. It was one of a row of bow-fronted buildings, each plastered in a different colour. If their facades failed to harmonise, their interiors sang in a thin, cracked unison the same song of comfortless gentility. Unmarried members of the herbarium staff nearly always lived at Number Five; once, possibly , some good reason had existed for this arrangement.

But it does wear at this reader; everyone is constantly overwrought, having fits of temper or hinting at Dire Knowledge, and even the characters notice that "everyone has been behaving queerly" – even those who have absolutely no reason for it, except that it keeps them in play as suspects.

Toby Dyke and his criminal friend George return, but this time George seems to do most of the heavy lifting – to the point of revealing the true solution in a final scene set several months later. Altogether it feels to me like a cunning setup for a puzzling death, with the plot and characters grudgingly wrapped round it.

I found this frankly hard work to get through, even though it's quite short, largely because of a near-total lack of sympathetic characters.

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

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