So Pretty a Problem by Francis Duncan

Originally published in 1950
Mordecai Tremaine #5
Preceded by Murder for Christmas
Followed by In at the Death

Adrian Carthallow, a dramatic and talented artist, is no stranger to controversy. But this time it’s not his paintings that have provoked a blaze of publicity – it’s the fact that his career has been suddenly terminated by a bullet to his head. Not only that, but his wife has confessed to firing the fatal shot.

The local law enforcement officer is less than convinced by Helen Carthallow’s story, but he has no other explanation for the incident that occurred when the couple was alone in their clifftop house. Luckily for the officer, amateur criminologist Mordecai Tremaine has an uncanny habit of being in the near neighborhood whenever a suspicious death strikes. As he mounts his investigation, Tremaine is quick to realize that however perfect a couple the Carthallows may have seemed, beneath the surface of their perfect life lay something much more sinister…

Mordecai Tremaine is resting on a Cornish beach in the sunshine and on the verge of drifting to sleep when he is startled to attention by a woman’s voice. That voice belongs to Helen Carthallow, the wife of an artist who has a home nearby, and she is asking him for help, saying that she has just killed her husband.

Mordecai Tremaine, after ascertaining that she has not spoken to anyone else yet, agrees to accompany her back to the home where he sees the body. Her story, that a gun accidentally fired while the pair were fooling around with a gun, is not particularly convincing – a fact that only becomes clearer with examination of the crime scene. It soon seems clear that we are looking at a case of murder rather than an accident, prompting Tremaine to reflect on the events that led up to that moment on the beach.

The choice to begin with such a startling and dramatic moment makes for a pretty intriguing opening to the novel. By presenting those events to us in a relative absence of information about the victim or the suspects, emphasis gets placed on the apparent strangeness of the circumstances of that death. As openings go, this could have been quite unforgettable.

The problem lies however in the relationship between Mordecai Tremaine and this murder. If the moment on the beach was his first meaningful interaction with Helen or Adrian Carthallow we could expect that we would follow the investigation and gather evidence as he did. It would simply be a rather striking way to be brought into a case, not unlike the way Poirot and Hastings get pulled into Peril at End House. Instead Duncan decides that his hero would have long been aware of the tensions within the Carthallow household and this would necessitate a nonlinear structure involving a lengthy flashback.

To be clear, I have no problem at all with authors adopting a nonlinear approach. I think that such structures can be used thoughtfully to explore questions of memory as in The Red Right Hand or perhaps our perceptions of an event or events which might be read quite differently when we know the outcome of those events. The problem here is that the only reason to use it is to enable the book to begin with that mysterious image.

Why is that structure a problem? Well, for one thing it leads to some repetition in which we are given some background details in the first part that then have to be expanded upon and explained in the second. This prompted me to feel that the second part was quite slow paced, doing little to move our story forward. While those chapters gave us detail, they offered little that was new beyond the presence of Adrian Carthallow himself.

It doesn’t help that Tremaine’s prior entanglement with the various figures involved in the case often feels quite coincidental or contrived. Even his travel to Cornwall, necessary to have him on hand for the discovery of the body, is presented as a quirk of fate or perhaps destiny and it’s hard to understand what Duncan intended to be gained by the choice to have them already so well acquainted.

What is even more frustrating is that because Duncan begins with establishing many of the facts of the investigation, we actually do not have a lot of detection ahead of us. All we can do is learn the context to them that Tremaine will use in interpreting their significance. Unfortunately there are relatively few clues that require much context to make sense of them and so it feels like we are treading water, waiting to get back to the present in the timeline to resume what remains of the investigative and deductive portions of the mystery.

The structure thus serves to highlight that the case itself is not particularly complex, at least in terms of the elements involved. There are not a large number of clues given the page count and little in the way of misdirection, either purposeful or accidental. Instead things are often largely as they appear and so while I did not find any glaring fault with the solution, it offered nothing that surprised or particularly interested me.

Like many readers, I don’t ready detective fiction to be right. I want to feel stupid for missing the glaringly obvious implication of a detail or how two clues might interact with each other. I didn’t feel smart for figuring out the solution, I felt a little disappointed that the solution just confirmed what I had already felt sure of.

Adding to the book’s problems, the only character who made much of an impact with me was Adrian Carthallow himself. He is perhaps not the most nuanced figure, hitting many of the common artist tropes in fiction, but he is at least a vibrant figure who makes an impact. The other figures in the case by contrast feel rather underdeveloped and lacking color. For instance, while Helen’s entrance is striking I feel we learn very little about her or her personality beyond those opening pages.

This extends to Mordecai Tremaine himself who remains an enigma to me. His gentleness and susceptibility to romantic sentiment reminded me a little of Mr. Satterthwaite in Christie’s Three Act Tragedy but he is not as much fun and makes little impression here. That may perhaps be the issue with this book being a later outing for an established character but I noticed in rereading my review of the earlier novel Murder Has A Motive that I had a pretty similar reaction then, finding him unobjectionable but also uninteresting. I would add that I find it curious that he has this background as a tobacconist that has been completely irrelevant to both the mysteries I have read featuring him so far. Does anyone know if it is ever relevant in any of his investigations? It seems such a strange background to give him otherwise.

Not that I would anticipate getting around to trying another Duncan any time soon. While my experience with Michael Innes has taught me to never say never, it would take a fair amount of persuasion for me to reach for another in this series any time soon. Neither of my experiences of Tremaine have been terrible – it’s just that I would rather read a bad book than a bland one.

The Verdict: A striking opening promises much which the rest of the book, saddled with an awkward structure and bland storytelling, fails to deliver.

Second Opinions

Brad @ AhSweetMystery suggests that the problem is that the clues are all exactly what they appear to be. I do agree with him too that with the exception of Adrian Carthallow, the characterization here feels remarkably slight.

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery was not a fan either and makes an excellent point about the way Francis Duncan uses Mordecai Tremaine’s full name every time he refers to him. I hadn’t been conscious of that but I knew that something felt a little weird – now I know what it was! I am glad that he pointed out the differences in the covers – the yellow one seems a much better fit for the book than the blue one I have.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime didn’t love this one either, commenting that it reminded her why it has been years since she last read a Tremaine novel. I completely understand and I agree with her about an issue she has with an unsatisfying aspect of the resolution that I forgot to include in my own notes above.

5 thoughts on “So Pretty a Problem by Francis Duncan

  1. Aidan – thanks for the review. Shame that Brad, Kate, Steve and you didn’t like this one. I can only imagine what JJ will say. The last few book club selections seem jinxed so here’s hoping future choices lead to more satisfying reads.

    Shame that this one is disappointing as allegedly it is the best of the Francis Duncan novels. It is also a shame how widely Duncan’s books are available in re-prints when so many other better deserving authors (e.g., Brand, Carr, Rhode/Burton, Boucher, Quentin / Stagge, etc.) are not.


    1. Absolutely – these books were even on the shelves of Barnes and Noble when they first came out which is so rare for a vintage crime novel. The beautiful packaging almost certainly helped there…


  2. The one benefit of a bunch of us reading and reviewing the same book at the same time is that we really get to see the many ways something can disappoint us. I have a review of this coming on Thursday, and I should have just written “What they all said” 🙂


    1. Heh – that is true enough. I had that moment when I was one of the last people to offer an opinion and realized how everything I planned to say had already been voiced! It is lovely though to read a book and know that there are others who have read the thing, even if we didn’t love it…


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