Murder On the Way! is one of two novels by Theodore Roscoe that were republished earlier this year by Bold Venture Press. Both books were edited and boast introductions written by our very own JJ so when I read his tweet and blog post about these books I became rather excited, immediately buying both and placing them on the top of my To Read list.
After purchasing my copies of each came the dilemma of which of the books to read first. In the end I opted to start with this title because I thought that the Haitian setting could be interesting. I was also curious to see how a supernatural element such as zombies could coexist with the structure of a mystery story.
The answer is complex and potentially spoilery. Let me begin by assuring those who might be turned off by the mention of zombies that while the book does have a macabre flavor and features some horrific moments, this is very much a mystery story. Haitian superstitions certainly do play a very important role in this narrative but each of the killings, no matter how bizarre or seemingly impossible, will have an entirely rational explanation by the end.
The novel begins with the narrator’s girlfriend, Pete, being summoned to Haiti to hear the terms of a will in which she has been named. After some reluctance she, and her artist boyfriend, decide to attend. On arriving they encounter the other people named in the will who are a strange collection of highly unsavory types. When the will is read they learn that each of the people named has been placed in an ordered list. Whoever the highest remaining person on that list is twenty-four hours after the deceased’s body is buried will inherit his entire estate, provided they have not left the grounds. Pete, it turns out, is the last name on the list.
If you are thinking ‘that sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath’ then you’d be quite correct. One-by-one these potential heirs are picked off, often in seemingly impossible ways including a locked room murder. That this takes place in spite of the presence of the Haitian police, who arrive to take charge of the crime scene early in the novel, makes these murders seem all the more remarkable.
Roscoe packs his story with a number of seemingly inexplicable moments or situations to a point where I was seriously beginning to worry that he might need to resort to a supernatural explanation to pull everything together. The variety on offer is seriously impressive and it is striking to think that many of those little mysteries could easily have formed the basis for whole novels. Of these moments, my favorite involves a chase in which a character disappears in a corridor but there are plenty of other good ones to pick from.
I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.
Roscoe’s novel can be said to defy easy categorization and it is notable how the middle section of the book represents a significant shift in tone and style. In the opening Roscoe pitches his story as though he is laying the groundwork for the investigation of an impossible crime yet by this stage the novel feels like a thriller in the way Roscoe builds and manages tension.
This pace encourages the reader to keep going, building momentum as they know another murder will be just a few pages away and if the reader chooses to enjoy the book as a thriller they will be satisfied. The book contains some really great surprises and builds to a rather striking crescendo that cultivates a sense of dread while placing the narrator in significant danger.
Yet, should the reader prefer to take their time and reflect, the novel works equally well as a more conventional detective story. Roscoe takes the time to make sure his book is fairly clued. The solution to what is happening can be reasoned even without a thorough search for clues or comprehensive interviews with each of the suspects. In doing so, this satisfies both as a thriller and also as a more traditional mystery.
Murder on the Way! is a rich and interesting read packed with striking imagery and boasting an intriguing mystery. I enjoyed discovering just what had happened in this house and found the ending to be very satisfying. While I plan on spacing it out, I am looking forward to reading I’ll Grind Their Bones soon and seeing how it compares.