I was impatient.
Death of Anton, a crime story originally published in 1936, was released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in Britain over two years ago and it instantly caught my eye with its charming cover and intriguing description. I had waited patiently to be able to buy it but after two years I had given up hope that Poisoned Pen Press would be releasing it Stateside. I did however notice that it had been available for some time on Audible and decided that I was fed up of waiting. In fairly typical fashion I learned the next day that it would be released here this December.
As it happens I have no regrets. The book is a delight and one of the most enjoyable I have read in this range to date. For those who care about such things, I would add that the audiobook version is very well performed and that the narrator has an excellent handle on how to deliver the author’s witty prose.
Inspector Minto is a detective from Scotland Yard but when we first encounter him he is staying in a hotel in the hopes of dissuading his sister from marrying a man his brother deems unsuitable. Over breakfast he meets a clown who performs at a circus that is beginning a week’s run nearby and who, after hinting at some illegal intrigue taking place there, invites Minto (and guests) to a party he is giving after the evening’s performance.
Some time after dinner however as the party begins to die down the body of Anton, a tiger tamer, is found having seemingly been attacked by his own beasts. Minto becomes suspicious that this is not the simple accident it appears to be and begins his investigation.
I want to leave my description of the plot there because part of the fun of what follows is the way the story evolves as Minto tries to piece things together. There is one further development that I must reference however because it is one of the most distinctive elements of this story.
The brother of Mr. Minto is the priest at a nearby Catholic church and, following the murder, the person responsible goes to him and confesses to the murder. That details of that discussion cannot be divulged as they are under the confessional seal and so we have a character who is aware of the identity of the murderer and yet cannot knowingly provide any details to aid his brother’s investigation. This device works pretty well here as it means we have a character who can ultimately confirm the identity of the killer at the end of the story. It also provides an entertaining source of frustration for our detective at several points in the investigation.
Melville finds ways to frustrate his detective throughout the novel which I found quite delightful. Minto of Scotland Yard is often a competent detective and yet he is far from a brilliant one. At several points in the narrative he makes crucial mistakes or incorrect assumptions and yet he is also shown to be quite methodical and diligent in the way he approaches working on his leads and theories.
The circus setting is every bit as colorful and lively as you might expect and provides us with a collection of larger-than-life characters to suspect and enjoy. Their rivalries are another constant source of comedy throughout the book and some of their personalities are very amusingly observed.
Having focused on my comments on how amusing and colorful the book is, I think I should end by reflecting on the crime itself and its solution. Although the plot twists on several occasions and gives us some very memorable developments, the eventual solution is fairly straightforward and I found it to be the least interesting part of the book. Happily Melville figures out a way to work some laughter into the conclusion to keep his tone consistent while also providing some resolution but I suspect few readers will be wowed by Minto’s deductions.
Generally the solution to what is going on makes sense though I do believe there is a point in the story where Minto presumes something that he did not have evidence for at that moment. I didn’t feel cheated because I think that by the time that assumption becomes important the reader would have reached a similar conclusion by themselves and I don’t think it affects the outcome of the investigation at all and overall I would say Melville plays fair in the ways that matter.
Death of Anton is yet another triumph for one of my favorite ranges of mystery titles and is certainly an unusual and entertaining read. It is remarkable how effectively Melville makes a story that possesses several potentially dark moments feel light and whimsical in tone. It is Highly Recommended.
Availability Note: Death of Anton will be released in North America on December 5, 2017 and is already available on audio.