The File on Lester by Andrew Garve

FileonLester
The File on Lester
Andrew Garve (aka. Roger Bax)
Originally Published 1974

While The File on Lester is the first novel by Andrew Garve you will find reviewed on this blog it is not the first novel by this author I have read. Garve was one of three pseudonyms used by journalist Paul Winterton for his fiction and I have previously read several inverted crime stories he wrote as Roger Bax.

The File on Lester is a different type of mystery fiction that I have not encountered on this blog before – dossier crime fiction (credit to Martin Edwards’ post about this book for acquainting me with the term). The book is structured as a series of (fictional) memos, diary entries and documents that have been assembled from different sources tracking developments in a political scandal. Some of those sources have biases either for or against the accused politician and the reader has to use that information to work out exactly what is going on.

A charismatic and young politician has quickly risen to prominence to become the leader of the Progressive Party on the eve of a General Election. His party is widely expected to win in a landslide but his campaign is rocked when a woman turns up at one of his events and asks a press photographer to pass a message to Lester to let him know that she is back in the country and hinting that they had shared a previous sexual encounter. The photographer speaks with Lester who he denies knowing the woman leading the press to return to the woman who tells a lurid and detailed story of nude sunbathing and subsequent night of passion aboard Lester’s boat.

A newspaper owner sends several of his top political journalists and his daughter to investigate the case and most of the documents in the second half of the book document the outcomes of their interviews and research, culminating with an entry that explains what had happened and why. The problem the reader has to wrestle with is to determine who is lying. As Lester’s supporters note, it is hard to understand why he would lie about not knowing the woman given that both he and she were single, consenting adults in her account but the evidence against him seems detailed and accurate.

While I was reading this I assumed that the novel must have been written in the late 70s as some elements of its premise mirror that of a famous British political scandal from later in that decade. Lester, like Thorpe, is a young widower whose wife died in a car accident and who is widely expected to find electoral success in an election in 1974. Lester, like Thorpe, is not depicted as a radical but as a centrist figure and both are considered dandies, dressing fashionably.

In fact it was written several years before the story became widely reported, being published in 1974, so while it may have drawn on some elements of that situation (Scott had shopped his story around newspapers at the start of that decade), it would not have drawn those comparisons with contemporary readers. Whether it was inspired by Thorpe or not, the work is a complete work in its own right with strong characters and an interesting plot that contains several intriguing developments.

One such development is the discovery of a piece of evidence that either was genuinely dropped in a space that was subsequently locked and under observation or placed into it after the fact to support one of the parties’ accounts. Yes, in the middle of this narrative we get the possibility of an impossibility! While this question only hangs over the narrative for a couple of pages (and I wouldn’t suggest that you read it purely for this element), it is very cleverly handled and I appreciated the manner in which it is resolved.

There are also elements of the procedural at play as the various journalists attempt to track down sources to corroborate their stories. “Garve” gives each of these journalists distinctive personalities and approaches to getting their stories. A nameless editor provides very brief commentaries on their personalities and backgrounds in the chapter headings when they first appear, further giving the sense that we are reading a real document rather than a novel. While I know I have read other crime stories that present fiction as fact, I cannot think of any that have done so as effectively.

The puzzle “Garve” constructs is balanced beautifully and the reader may find their beliefs about what happened shift at times in the narrative. If you are interested in reading this story I do caution you to avoid its Goodreads page as the solution to the case is spoiled in the plot description at the top.

That solution is rather clever and I found it to be a pretty convincing explanation for what had taken place. While a contemporary review suggested that it was far too short, I feel that it is about the perfect length for the story it is trying to tell and cannot imagine how it could have been stretched out without weakening the narrative.

I was a little less keen on a romantic subplot. This is not a late addition or an afterthought but rather the author weaves hints at an attraction as a motivation for a character looking into the case throughout the whole novel. This struck me as quite well done but later in the novel it is more directly addressed in a scene that I felt was quite rushed. I did appreciate the way that both characters had been written up until that point however and it is really only a small element of the novel.

On the whole I found The File on Lester to be a quick and satisfying read and it is easily my best experience with Paul Winterton’s work so far. The situation struck me as interesting and credible portrait of a political scandal, building to a very tidy conclusion. If you haven’t read anything by the author this would be a great one to start with, particularly thanks to a recent Bello reprint it is not too expensive an acquisition.

This book was published in the United States as The Lester Affair.

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax

blueprint
Blueprint for Murder
Roger Bax (aka. Andrew Garve)
Originally Published 1948
Inspector James #1
Followed by APA: The Trouble with Murder

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)

Disposing of Henry by Roger Bax

DisposingofHenry
Disposing of Henry
Roger Bax (aka. Andrew Garve)
Originally Published 1947

While I like to read inverted mysteries, it has been a while since I last came across one in its pure form. No tricks, no secret identities or revelations – just the story of how someone makes the choice to become a killer and how things unfold after the deed is done.

Disposing of Henry is credited to Roger Bax, a pseudonym used by Paul Winterton who also wrote as Andrew Garve and Paul Somers. This is the first time I’ve encountered him under any of those names though given he wrote at least a couple of other inverted stories I doubt it will be the last.

The story begins with a nineteen year old girl named Daisy running away from the slum in which she lives with her parents to start a new life in the city as a typist. For a while she is quite happy but when her boss makes the suggestion that she should set her sights higher and become a mannequin for a department store (in the sense of modelling clothes for customers) she takes him up on the suggestion.

She creates a new persona for her job and begins dating. For a while this makes her happy though she wishes she could afford all the lovely clothes that she gets to wear at work but when she meets a married man who offers to set her up as his mistress in a flat she jumps at the idea. This will be the first step in a Becky Sharp-style rise to riches that will culminate in her marrying a rather mild-mannered man named Henry who will be the subject of a murder plot between her and a man she takes as her lover.

Typically an inverted story follows a certain form in which you are encouraged to feel at least a little sympathy for the killer or, alternatively, dislike of the victim. This novel does not attempt to do either of those things.

Daisy or, to use her assumed name, Denise is an unpleasant character. She may begin life as a victim of her father’s abuse but she is thoroughly material and calculating. I compared her to Becky Sharp from the novel Vanity Fair earlier but while the reader may take some enjoyment in that novel in her manipulating some rather unpleasant men, here that feeling quickly fades.

I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that her actions go much further, even if she plays a more passive role in the plot. The second is that her victim does not deserve his fate. Henry is a rather dotty but ultimately quite charming man who does absolutely nothing wrong beyond being flattered by an attractive younger woman’s attention to him. The reader will take no pleasure in seeing him killed and will likely hope that the police make his killers pay.

The third party in the triangle and the instigator of the affair is an injured air pilot who ‘Denise’ tends to in the hospital during the war. He is completely unsympathetic from the outset and has one of the least convincing flirtation techniques in fiction, telling her that if he has to spend much more time convalescing he will likely ‘rape [her] in the ward’.

Suffice it to say that I am not wholly convinced by that relationship though I do see that it is a physical attraction rather than any great meeting of the spirits. The novel is pretty frank about addressing their relationship (as it was with her first affair and its consequences) in a way that surprised me for a book written in 1947 and I do think the reader is supposed to see that her perceptions of his feelings and the actuality of their relationship are quite different.

The crime itself however is striking and, to my mind, the strongest reason to read the book. The murder takes place on Dartmoor and makes full use of the region’s rugged geography and hazardous terrain to chilling effect. As it happens I finished reading this section of the book just as Margot posted about the various ways in which Dartmoor has featured in crime novels and I do think that this is a particularly successful rendering of that landscape.

As is typical of the inverted form, there will be mistakes made in the planning and execution of the plan that the reader will spot long before the protagonists. The game for the reader is to figure out how the forces of law and order will be able to piece together what happened to catch them.

One of the most compelling sections of the story however comes after the murder as Denise tries to help cover up the crime. There is a sequence that is really quite chilling, verging on the horrific, as she has to interact with her husband’s body to cover up one of the mistakes that they have made. The author handles this sequence masterfully, building suspense and concentrating on the psychological impact it has on her rather than going into too much detail about what she is seeing.

If the whole novel were written in such a way I would have little hesitation in giving it a strong recommendation but there is little restraint shown in the rest of the novel. ‘Denise’ may be an unpleasant character but it is hard to continually read the male characters (with the exception of the lovely Henry) refer to her as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘slut’, particularly in the latter stages of the novel. While I think that is meant to say as much about them as it does about her, the double standard between her morality and that of her first lover is never quite driven home as powerfully as it could be.

Another issue that the reader may find with the book is that it highlights the elements that will prove to be Daisy’s downfall a little too clearly, making it easy to predict how the detectives will piece everything together. This is a shame because some of the ideas used are quite clever and might have been quite surprising if presented more subtly.

On a happier note, the novel does end with a strong and punchy conclusion. One image felt particularly effective and struck an interesting note that I haven’t really seen in an inverted story before.

That moment, coupled with the compelling murder and cover-up sequences earlier in the novel, almost make this book worthy of a recommendation but the problem is that the book feels too unpleasant to enjoy while the killers are simply not terribly interesting psychologically. If you are going to have a unlikeable and unsympathetic protagonist then you must have even more unpleasant victims. The problem is that you won’t want to dispose of a gentle soul like Henry and so you find yourself being told to cheer for the establishment forces that created Daisy in the first place. And that just isn’t satisfying either emotionally or dramatically.