Catt Out Of The Bag – Clifford Witting
If you like your detective novels laced with humour and a smidgeon of social satire, then this 1939 book, the fourth in the Inspector Harry Charlton series and the first of Witting’s I have read, will be right up your alley. It is set in the Yuletide season and so if you are planning what to read in the festive season, then make a note. If like me, you don’t mind reading a good book out of the season, then grab a copy now. There is a cheap, very cheap, edition in Kindle format.
There are some unusual elements to the book. Initially, it sets out as a disappearance, with a presumption that the missing Mr Vavasour has been killed, and then only later on does it become clear that he has been done away with. The focus of the book switches from where is Mr Vavasour to a whodunit.
The second oddity is that there is no central sleuth charged with unravelling the mystery. An engaging but ultimately superfluous character, Raymond Cloud-Glevill, does the initial sleuthing in an enthusiastic and rather amateur way, although he does cover some of the initial groundwork of the case, albeit in a less efficient manner than the constabulary would have done. He is aided and abetted by the narrator, John Rutherford, who then takes over when Raymond exits stage left to only to reappear, unnecessarily, at the end.
Rutherford happens to be the nephew of Inspector Charlton who assumes control of the case when Vavasour’s wife reluctantly reports that her hubby is missing and Charlton and other members of the constabulary who flit in and out, with Rutherford in tow, see the case out to its bitter end. The story is narrated by Rutherford who is allowed to use his imagination to fill in the precise details of events that Charlton and others tell him or which he observed. This is a neat device that does not spoil the flow of the narrative.
The Rutherfords are guests for the festive period of Sybil and Charles de Frayne in the fictional town of Paulsfield . Sybil de Frayne is a social climber, a busy-body, an organiser and a snob, reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket, while Charles appears to be a long-suffering husband who has learnt enough ruses to keep his wife at bay. The group, minus Charles, are roped into walking around the town singing carols to raise monies for one of Sybil’s good causes. During the course of the evening one of the party, Mr Vavasour, disappears and two sets of footsteps are heard. It is only the following day that it is realised that Mr Vavasour has disappeared and that his wife is reluctant to involve the police. What has happened to him?
During the course of the investigations, it emerges that Mr Vavasour, whose real name is Thomas Catt, is a polygamist and has used his cod profession as a travelling salesman to visit his paramours. His disappearance and murder have a devastating effect on some of his female victims, leading one to commit suicide.
Sybil’s military planning of the itinerant carol service allows the authorities to be specific as to the time of Vavasour’s disappearance and murder and it narrows the field of suspects considerably. My sense is that Witting was anticipating that the eventual unmasking of the culprit would take the reader by surprise but having read many books of this type I had my suspicions early on as to the murderer’s identity.
Nonetheless, that did not spoil my enjoyment of the book. Witting has clearly enjoyed himself painting a picture of the awful Sybil and pokes fun at her pretensions. She is not a bad person, though, with a heart of gold but would have been a nightmare to know and live with. The Christmas celebrations, including John having to dress up as Father Christmas for a nightmare of a Christmas party for the local children also provides much humour.
I enjoyed the book, a perfect light, undemanding read.