Originally Published 1936
When Bobbie Cheldon falls in love with a pretty young dancer at the Frozen Fang night club in Soho, he has every hope of an idyllic marriage. But Nancy has more worldly ideas about her future: she is attracted not so much to Bobbie as to the fortune he expects to inherit.
Bobbie’s miserly uncle Massy stands between him and happiness: he will not relinquish the ten thousand a year on which Nancy’s hopes rest. When Bobbie falls under the sway of the roguish Nosey Ruslin, the stage is set for murder in the heart of Piccadilly—and for Nancy’s dreams to be realised.
When Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard enters the scene, he uncovers a tangled web of love affairs, a cynical Soho underworld, and a motive for murder.
I had planned to round off my week with a review of the newly translated Paul Halter novel The Man Who Loved Clouds. The problem was that when the time came to pick up that book I was thoroughly absorbed in Murder in Piccadilly, an inverted mystery by Charles Kingston that was one of the earlier titles to be published in the British Library Crime Classics range.
Bobbie Cheldon is a somewhat immature and carefree young man who has never really made a success of his life because he always has in the back of his mind that he will inherit his uncle’s estate and with it an income of ten thousand pounds a year. Accordingly he lives quite an extravagant lifestyle, taking on obligations beyond his means and showing little interest in earning his own way.
Unfortunately for Bobbie his uncle is far from being an old man and is in relatively fine health meaning that there appears to be little chance of him inheriting any time soon. It is possible that he could have continued scrabbling along in the normal way of things but for his having fallen in love with a dancer who is perhaps more interested in his checkbook than in him as a person. Young Bobbie is oblivious however and with his mother’s help, tries to persuade his miserly Uncle Massy to provide him with a paid position or to settle some sum on him to enable him to marry.
Predictably this request does not go very well and soon Bobbie learns that if he doesn’t do something Nancy will likely leave the country on a tour with her dancing partner who also nurses a passion for her. In short, Bobbie is feeling pretty desperate. Unfortunately for him he falls in with some of Nancy’s circle of friends, one of whom has a plan for getting Bobbie his fortune and, as a result, benefiting from the death himself.
While the book does not explicitly acknowledge the imminent death of Uncle Massy from the beginning or the responsible party’s identity, it is effectively an inverted crime story. A sense of dread is evoked at several points in the early chapters for several characters as they become worried about where Bobbie’s feelings are leading him and we are made party to the plans being made to kill the uncle.
Though Kingston’s storytelling style is quite careful and methodical, I really enjoyed this first half of the novel and getting to know the characters he creates most of whom are quite colorful. While some of these characters can be quite amusing, I think few who have read this would disagree with my assessment that they are not a particularly pleasant bunch. Several of the characters exhibit vanity and self-absorption while even the victim comes off as stiff, hypocritical and judgmental. In spite of that I found them to be an entertaining bunch and enjoyed learning how they would factor into the case and its outcome.
Kingston effectively builds and sustains tension throughout this first half of the novel as we wait for Uncle Massy to be murdered and for the investigation to begin. While we had been party to the planning of the crime it quickly becomes clear that the murder did not take place exactly according to plan and so the reader has to piece together just who carried out what actions and why throughout the second half of the book.
This investigation is carried out by Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard and it is made more enjoyable for his past interactions with one of the suspects who he teases, prods and manipulates throughout the remainder of the novel. At this point the reader can see both the strategy of the guilty party and has a sense of the style and competency of the detective and so the question becomes who is better placed to prevail in that contest.
Wake cuts a less colorful figure than Bobbie Cheldon yet I think he still exhibits plenty of personality. He perhaps is prone to using his intuition rather than solid procedural work to narrow the suspect pool which is not altogether satisfying but it is interesting to read how he is interviewing the various suspects and to track the course of his suspicions.
Kingston packs in plenty of incident but what really sold me on the book is a twist he saves until close to the end. It is a perfect development that transforms the ending of the story and it is fairly clued, making it all the more satisfying. To me that moment elevates the book as a whole from being a pretty solid effort to becoming something more special and satisfying.
While its slightly slow pacing and dark characterizations may not appeal to everyone, I found the novel to be a thoroughly entertaining one. The situation Kingston creates and describes is interesting and the twist is superb as are the characterizations. I was impressed enough that I know I will want to see if I can track down more of his writing to get a taste of their other work. The challenge will be finding an affordable one!
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Matriarch/Patriarch of the family (Who)