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I have to say that upon picking up this book and skimming over the front cover and blurb, I was slightly confused. On one hand, the title suggested that the book would be something rather silly, and this notion was enhanced by the quote in the synopsis from Inspector Wilkins - "Don't expect me to solve anything". On the other hand, on the front cover one newspaper calls the book 'A triumph of ingenuity', and another calls it 'A tightly gripping story'. So was it going to be a massive joke or a really well-thought out murder mystery? Suitably intrigued by this riddle, I began to read.
The novel starts with a plan of the first floor of Alderley, the stately home which forms the setting for the murder, along with a list of all the main characters. A pretty clichéd start, but one familiar to readers of Agatha Christie. I felt that I was in safe territory.
However, the character list isn't really needed since the first six or seven chapters are devoted to the introduction of all the main characters, as well as setting the scene to the various different plot strands. The story is set in the 1930s, although it is not clear exactly which year. In the prologue, the reader is made privy to a plot by foreign spies to discover how far Britain will go to defend the Duchy (which appears to be a small, fictional country) in the event of an invasion. This suggests that the year is somewhere near to the beginning of the Second World War.
To cut to the chase, as a result of various coincidences (some of which are contrived), the Earl of Burford and his wife Lavinia end up inviting about ten people over for a long weekend at their grand old stately home, Alderley. Most of the people don't know each other (or at least, that is what they say).
The Earl's daughter, Lady Geraldine, has invited her friend Jane Clifton for the weekend because Jane has recently lost her job. The Earl's brother, Richard (who is a government minister), is using the house as an inconspicuous place to meet with a foreign envoy and his aide. Algernon Fotheringhay, a young and rather stupid young man, has invited himself over. Hiram Peabody and his wife have come over from Texas to inspect the Earl of Burford's famous gun collection (which incidentally houses a large number of viable murder weapons...it's so obvious it's laughable). Giles Deveraux has come over to research a book on stately homes. Then at dinner, an old flame of Richard's, Baroness Anilese de la Roche, appears, claiming that her car has broken down and she has nowhere to stay. Naturally, it was only polite to invite her to stay for the weekend too. You can see that the author has provided a rather large range of suspects for this looming murder. And of course, there's always the butler.
Unfortunately the real action doesn't emerge until about half-way through the book, although the author does make good use of the space; building up the tension, creating puzzling incidents and throwing suspicion on all members of the house party. The first crime occurs when Mrs Peabody's expensive diamond necklace is stolen during the night, while the intruder escapes through the window. The local policeman, Inspector Wilkins, is called to investigate, although when he arrives he doesn't instil the gathering with any confidence, insisting that the whole affair is too big and complicated for him to unravel, and repeatedly assuring the company that he is 'not sanguine, not sanguine at all'.
The next day, the body of Martin Adler, the foreign envoy who had been meeting with Richard, is found in the lake. Baroness Anilese de la Roche is nowhere to be found. As the case turns into a murder enquiry, the darkest secrets of all the guests at Alderley are about to be discovered. But will anything ever be solved with the hopeless Inspector Wilkins on the case?
I began by treating this book as a bit of a laugh, something light-hearted to pass the time. To some extent, it does fulfil these qualities. The murder is all too predictable, with Lord Burford conveniently owning a well-publicised gun collection, and the robbery also comes as no surprise as Mr Peabody has just told a reporter all about his wife's diamonds while a notorious society jewel thief is on the loose. Then comes the bumbling inspector who appears in most Agatha Christie novels (most notably Chief Inspector Japp) having no clue about how to proceed.
However, delving deeper into the book I found that it was actually very clever. Even before the murder the various plotlines and motivations of all the different characters are highly developed even though there is such a variety of suspects. The reader comes to believe that nobody is entirely who they claim to be, and that everyone has something to hide.
After the arrival of Inspector Wilkins, the ingenuity of the book really comes into focus. While it appears that the inspector is just fumbling about, not really understanding the whole situation, he is in fact investigating the murder as well as any Poirot or Miss Marple. His extreme modesty and lack of showmanship are humorous because he becomes the exact opposite of the arrogant Hercule Poirot. While Poirot likes to call a melodramatic gathering of suspects in order to reveal the murderer, Inspector Wilkins gets someone else to do it for him because he would "probably get muddled and mess it all up".
The way that the murderer is revealed takes up a large portion of the book (about eight chapters), mainly because it is so complex with all of the various sub-plots running around and complicating things. The ending came as a massive shock to me, which I liked because I'd invented so many theories in my head about who had done it, and they all turned out to be absolute rubbish! It only added to my admiration of the author.
The book is pretty long in comparison to an Agatha Christie novel at 366 pages. However, each chapter is about seven pages long, so it is split up into pretty bite-sized chunks. The novel is quite gripping at times but it's not something that will keep you awake reading until the small hours.
Overall, this book is not what it seems. It looks like a really silly parody of the work of Agatha Christie, but it is in fact far more ambitious and complicated than that. It is humorous, but also a challenging mystery. The one thing that still concerns me, though, is that the purpose of the book isn't clear, and so it is bound to disappoint the reader. If one reader expects a ridiculous satire, it doesn't quite happen because this is a complete murder mystery in its own right. If another reader expects a full-blown mystery, though, that view isn't quite right either because of all the clichés and predictability.
I really enjoyed the book, I thought it was both clever and funny, but there was something not-quite-right about it as I have outlined above. I think that the novel really just needed to decided whether it was an outright parody or a just a plain old murder mystery in order to truly succeed. Although this is a good read, it is slightly unsettling for the reader to not know whether they should be taking it seriously or not. I'd recommend this as a fairly good book, but just try not to expect too much from it.