Friday, 21 January 2011

Forgotten Books - Half-Mast Murder

Milward Kennedy was a founder member of the Detection Club, but his novels are long out of print in the UK, and Half-Mast Murder is a good candidate for inclusion in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books.

Published in 1930, it is a country house murder case, boasting three plans, including one of the octagonal summer house in which Professor Paley, an expert on the subject of international relations, is found stabbed to death. The summer house is locked, but Superintendent Guest soon establishes that the victim was murdered, and the ‘locked room’ element of the story is quite minor. The flag above the summer house is flying at half-mast – but why? The explanation for this aspect of the story is a pretty good one.

The main question is whether the motive for the murder was connected to the dead man’s political views, or to some more commonplace personal or domestic issue. There is one character who appears to be above suspicion throughout, and if I were writing the book, I’d have been tempted to make her the culprit. But Kennedy opts for a different outcome, although the motive is concealed until the end of the book (and because a key fact is not revealed until very late on, he doesn’t really play fair with the reader.) The culprit’s identity is, though, a pleasing twist on an old theme.

Kennedy, whose full name was Milward Roden Kennedy Burge, was an interesting character. His first book was a mystery written with a contemporary from Winchester College, A.G. Macdonell, best known for the humorous classic England, Their England. He wrote few novels after the 30s, though he reviewed crime until the 60s, and lived until 1968. At one time, he worked for the League of Nations, which is name-checked in his book, and I felt this background might have been more fully exploited than in fact proves to be the case. Kennedy was a good enough writer to come up with some very interesting ideas, though not perhaps good enough to make the very best use of them. Even so, this is a sound example of Golden Age fiction of the second rank.


Dorte H said...

´Playing fair´ - again this contract with the reader. I don´t mind writers being innovative, but in my opinion this is one of the fairly important rules.

I began reading Kate Summerscale´s renowned "The Suspicions of Mr Whicher" this morning, and after the first pages I knew which motive I would have chosen if I had invented the story - but now that it is non-fiction I´m interested to see if the murderer thought the same way.

Evan Lewis said...

Can you imagine a guy going through life with a name like Milward Roden Kennedy Burge? No wonder he was demented enough to become a writer.

Richard R. said...

It's a shame this author's mystery novels aren't available in current editions, perhaps in a trade paper three novel omnibus format. Perhaps a chance for a niche publisher?

Evan - probably was called "Milie" or somesuch. Oh my.

Martin Edwards said...

Great comments, thanks.
Dorte - look out for my post on Wednesday!
Evan, I also have a story about how MK fell foul of the law which I'll post at a later date.
Richard, yes, it would be great to see more of those old books available again.

Dorte H said...

Thank you. I will!