Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville
I always look forward to getting my hands on titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but this one was particularly exciting for me. You see, Death of Anton from the same author was one of the books I most enjoyed reading last year and remains one of my go-to suggestions when someone asks for a recommendation from the range.
Weekend at Thrackley was the author’s first work and represents a different style of storytelling more reminiscent of some of the early Agatha Christie thrillers. It is unmistakably from the same author however being told in a very witty style that often draws comparisons with Wodehouse. Not all the jokes land quite as well as they probably did in 1934 but even when a joke falls flat, the humorous approach gives the book a light and breezy quality that makes it a pleasure to read.
The hero of our story is Jim, an unemployed young man who unexpectedly receives an invitation to a country house party from a man he doesn’t know. That man, Carson, claims to have known his father and while he is perplexed by this supposed connection, he is not one to pass up a weekend of fine dining so agrees to go. It turns out that one of his friends has also been invited down and the pair motor down together, making an agreement to have a coded message arrive should they wish to make an early escape.
When they arrive they encounter a fairly strange mix of guests, none of whom know Carson personally either and they have little in common with each other. We will soon learn the reasons why they have been invited however and, knowing those intentions, we then watch to see how those plans will play out.
The characters comprising the house party are rendered in varying degrees of detail with some remaining only loosely sketched. Freddie Usher, Jim’s friend, was a favorite as while he is quite affable he is not a great thinker. Kate in her excellent review suggests that he ends up acting as a sort of ‘not hugely bright sounding board for Jim’ which I think is pretty accurate.
There are three other characters who stand out: a shapely dancer named Raoul who is in a popular West End show, a socialite who enjoys supporting a diverse mix of causes and Carson’s daughter. Much like those early Christie thrillers, there is a light romantic subplot here that adds some appeal to the story. Happily though this character is more than just someone for Jim to hold at the end as she will play an important role in some key points of the resolution making her feel much deeper than the romantic interests often do in these stories.
Given we already know the villain’s identity and plans, there are really only two questions that the reader will be invited to solve: why was Jim invited to this party and how will Carson be stopped? While I found the twists and turns of Melville’s story to offer little in the way of shock or surprise, I did think it was very neatly executed and easy to follow.
While I think Weekend at Thrackley does what it sets out to do quite well, unless you are specifically a fan of lightly comical thrillers I would not suggest it as your first encounter with this author. The book certainly charms and entertains but it reveals so much so soon that it is not particularly mysterious while, if you are looking for a comic read, those elements become less prominent in the story in its action-dominated final third.
Melville’s Death of Anton feels like a more substantial and complete work, reflecting his development as a writer and a growing comfort in subverting some of the traditional beats of a mystery story. Alternatively, while I think Quick Curtain disappoints as a mystery it does at least maintain its humorous approach throughout the whole novel, building it into its resolution.
If you have read and enjoyed those other titles however, I do think there is plenty here to appeal. While it may have been his first novel, Melville had clearly already developed his voice as an author by this point and he writes an entertaining, charming piece of fiction. I really hope that the British Library will release his other remaining crime fiction works as I gather he played around with some of the other crime fiction subgenres and his work, even when not perfect, is always sparklingly witty and charming.
Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 7 by Poisoned Pen Press.