Originally Published 1948
Inspector James #1
Followed by APA: The Trouble with Murder
Wealthy industrialist Charles Collison is found bludgeoned to death shortly after his son, Geoffrey, and nephew, Arthur Cross, return from World War II. As the principal beneficiaries of Charles’ will, both men are suspects. Inspector James, called in to investigate, thinks he knows which of them is guilty.
When I reviewed Disposing of Henry a few months ago I found it to be a frustrating read. It had some brilliant and effective moments including a highly effective murder scene and the author’s use of horrific imagery as the killers try to cover up their crime. Unpleasant characterizations and somewhat predictable plotting however made reading it a rather joyless experience.
Blueprint for Murder was written a year before that work and has many elements in common. We have a largely unsympathetic murderer, a gentle and generous victim as well as an evocative murder scene but the balance here is slightly different and the introduction of some lighter elements makes it a more entertaining read.
The novel begins with a prologue that not only introduces us to our murderer, it also clearly sets the tone for what will follow. In the final days of the war a British soldier, Arthur Cross, is on the run through the countryside when he happens upon a farm. Though he is in a German uniform he is able to tell the farmer and his daughter that he is British and had been in a prisoner of war camp after his plane was shot down. He is given shelter which he repays by robbing and murdering them.
Several months later paint manufacturer Charles Collison throws a small get-together on his boat for his son, Geoffrey, and his nephew, Arthur. He is pleased that everyone is finally together again and offers both men the opportunity to manage the day-to-day running of his firm for a comfortable wage and to come live with him. Arthur has little interest in the job but when Charles mentions that he has instructed his solicitor to draw up a will splitting his estate between the two his thoughts immediately turn to ways to murder the old man.
One of the themes that I noticed about both Bax novels is that the experience of going to war is shown to make men hard and bitter. Arthur does not dislike his Uncle beyond finding him a little pompous and rather admires his steadiness and that he feels a sense of duty towards his nephew but feels that he does not want to work hard or strive. He is not planning a long and prosperous life for himself but plans to live fast and die young. Charles’ death offers him a way to live the life he wants and he does not see why he should have to wait for that.
The plan he develops is a rather ingenious, if risky one that I will not spoil beyond saying that he aims to create a perfect alibi for himself. Arthur approaches planning his crime in a cold, analytical way and coolly thinks through many of the problems he may face. He even considers that it would be a good thing if he could contrive a way for the blame to seem to fall onto his cousin who would be the other likely suspect.
In short, this isn’t the sort of story where the killer leaves an obvious trail back to themselves. Arthur’s plan is solidly thought through and the thing that will undo him is something that he never considers although he has a contingency in place if things go badly for him. The reader will not be able to deduce that twist so this is really more of an inverted crime story than a mystery but I think it is very well done and leads to an exciting, action-driven conclusion.
While Arthur is the protagonist, “Bax” introduces a secondary character who will serve as a hero and romantic lead. Charles’ son Geoffrey is of a similar age but had a very different experience during the war having quite enjoyed his time in uniform and seen very little of the conflict itself. He is positive and I imagine that contemporary readers would have seen him as quite charming although some of his attitudes come off as quite sexist to a modern reader.
Take for instance his dating techniques which leave a lot to be desired. Part way into the story he meets a young woman who is training to become a doctor and asks her out on a date where he inquires about her unusual career choice. During their conversation he manages to imply that she lacks the physical strength and the backbone to be a surgeon and yet she amazingly accepts a second date during which he instructs her to go make him a pot of tea. Which she does.
I rolled my eyes quite a lot during most of the scenes between this pair and yet I think their presence gives the story a lightness and optimism it needs to achieve a sense of balance with Arthur’s story. Disposing of Henry would made the mistake of killing off its only sympathetic character early in the story but even if we do not like Geoffrey, most readers would probably agree that he does nothing to deserve getting caught up in this situation.
It all culminates in a very dramatic and action-driven conclusion that I think is well-crafted, even though one of the biggest moments is signposted far too clearly early in the novel. There are some strong action beats though sadly an attempt at a big character reveal fell a bit flat for me as it tried to surprise me with something I had assumed we were being told quite directly early in the novel. I can only assume that the reveal may have been more surprising to readers in the late-40s.
Still, in spite of those small quibbles and a few elements that didn’t work quite as they should have, I found this to be a very effective inverted crime story. Arthur’s murder plan is clever and featured some elements I hadn’t seen before. The author does a phenomenal job of bringing the moment of the murder to life and makes the reader feel the tension and the violence of that scene.
For those who can stomach spending time with its cold and vicious protagonist, I think this is a rewarding and often quite exciting read. I certainly plan on seeking out more work by this author, not only under this pseudonym but also as Andrew Garve, in the near future.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Matriarch/patriarch of the family (Who)