In 1931, Milward Kennedy wrote the first of three books under the pseudonym of Evelyn Elder. These are rare books, but the first Elder, Murder in Black and White, has recently been reprinted by Fender Tucker’s excellent small press, Ramble House. I strongly recommend Ramble House, who have brought back at reasonable prices a host of obscure titles.
This book contains, in effect, a ‘challenge to the reader’ in the Ellery Queen style, though it is not expressly described as such. The author says: ‘When teh reader has reached the end of Part Three he is in possession of all the facts needed to reach the solution of the problem. Such further facts as are introduced in Part Four (and they are virtually only two in number) are no more than confirmation of the theory which emerges from the rest of the book.’ So in a sense, Rupert Penny, whom I quoted a while back, was wrong in saying that The Talkative Policeman was the first English book to present this kind of direct challenge to the reader.
The novel shows us both the best and the worst of Kennedy. He was an intelligent man and a good writer, with a flair for ingenious ideas that suited the Golden Age. But somehow, all too often, the sum of the parts does not add up to as much as it ought. The narrative is strangely constructed, with far too many characters introduced too soon, and this becomes wearisome. I didn’t care about the people as much as I should have done, given that Kennedy was better at characterisation than some of his contemporaries.
And yet the idea of the book is very appealing. An architect and amateur artist, Sam Horder, takes a holiday in the south of France and becomes involved in a seemingly impossible crime. Real tennis, of which Kennedy was clearly a fan, plays a significant part in the story. Sam’s sketches are reproduced in the book – Part Two consists solely of them - and you can, if you care to do so, try to figure out the solution by studying them. He recounts the mystery to a friend, who plays armchair detective by doing just that. The sketches were actually drawn by Austin Blomfield, himself an architect and artist who went into practice with his father, an architect of distinction whose work included buildings at Lady Margaret Hall.
Overall, then, a book I found frustrating yet, from a historical perspective, very interesting indeed.