Originally published in 1950
Doctor Manson #8
Preceded by John Kyleing Died
Followed by Look in at Murder
The trouble began during a holiday in Paignton. When Jack met Mary, his future wife, he also met James Sprogson, a charming villain bent on destroying the couple’s happiness. Mary distrusted Sprogson but Jack regarded him as a good fellow who drank and gambled a little too much, perhaps, but was harmless and likeable. However, Jack’s association with Sprogson was to lead to robbery, blackmail and, at last, murder.
A very solid inverted mystery – though it is stronger on the forensic analysis than in terms of its character development or exploration.
This past week I have had inverted mysteries on the brain. A big part of the reason for that was my experiencing reading R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone which I found a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As it happens one of the authors of the book I am discussing today, Edwin Radford, was a fan of the Thorndyke mysteries too and this work feels like a conscious homage to those stories.
The Heel of Achilles introduces us to Jack, a young mechanic who is desperately saving so he can afford to open his own garage and get married. He befriends James Sprogson, a man his fiancée instantly recognizes as a disreputable sort but who he dismisses as being just a little fond of his drink. When Jack is invited along on a job to earn something extra he happily agrees, not realizing that he is being invited along on a robbery.
As it happens everything quickly goes wrong and Jack finds himself handed the loot while Sprogson is dragged off to prison. Implicated in the crime, Jack has to start a new life for himself under an assumed name and for a while he seems to be safe. That is until he runs into Sprogson again and receives the first in a series of blackmail demands.
Inevitably Jack comes to realize that he cannot go on making payments to Sprogson and decides that he must get rid of his tormentor. Being a reader of mystery novels, Jack recognizes some of the common mistakes made by murderers in stories and he is determined not to repeat them.
I think blackmail works well as a motivation for murder in inverted mystery stories because it can engender some sympathy for the murderer. Particularly if, as with Jack, they never intended to commit a serious crime in the first place and have no easy way out of the mess they find themselves in. We may not agree with his choice but I think readers would understand his desperation.
I also appreciated that the authors made the murder a planned action and consciously avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls. In quite some detail they cover each of the problems Jack predicts and the actions he takes to erase or alter evidence to suit the story he is trying to tell. His plan is intricate and yet the alert reader will probably detect several loose ends. The question is what will lead the detectives to Jack?
The Radfords adopt a similar structure to that used by Freeman in his inverted short stories, breaking his novel into two sections. The first thirty percent of the novel portrays the events leading up to and including the crime being committed, following the actions of the murderer. The remainder of the story, wonderfully titled ‘Cherchez l’homme’, is told exclusively from the perspective of Dr. Manson, the forensic investigator.
Once again I was put in mind of Freeman and in particular his detective Dr. Thorndyke when Manson enters the story. Most obviously, both men are forensic scientists but each also carries a small mobile laboratory in a case to the crime scenes. Their personalities are, however, a little different as Manson strikes me as a more sharp and prickly personality than Thorndyke.
One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.
The choice to only give us the perspective of the investigator in this second half of the book makes a lot of sense given the nature of the crime and Jack’s plan. It does mean though that the Radfords never really explore the impact of the crime on the person committing it which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly is fairly unusual for a work of this length to pass over the opportunity to develop a cat-and-mouse game between the criminal and detectives.
It is perhaps this aspect of the book that is most responsible for making me feel it must have been a little old-fashioned, even at the point when it was first published. It feels much more focused on the business of forensic investigation than exploring crime as an experience and when an emotional component is introduced, the tone struck is more in keeping with melodrama than an attempt at realism.
I would advise potential readers of this to ignore the original publication date and instead consider this in the context of a few other forensically-minded characters. If you enjoy Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories or John Rhode’s Dr. Priestley mysteries, I suspect you will find a lot to admire and enjoy here. The presentation of the forensic techniques and applied reasoning are very good and while the storytelling style is slow and deliberate, each development in the case is clearly explained and explored.