A review of Accessory After by E Charles Vivian
This is the first book by Evelyn Charles Vivian, one of noms de plume of Charles Henry Cannell, that I have read. Cannell fought in the Boer War and was a journalist at the Daily Telegraph before leaving to edit three pulp magazines, The Novel Magazine, Hutchinson’s Adventure-Story Magazine, and Hutchinson’s Mystery-Story Magazine. He was also a prolific novelist, writing fantasy, science-fiction, and murder mystery novels under various pseudonyms. Accessory After is one, perhaps the first although there are references to an earlier case in the text, of twelve Inspector Jerry Head novels he published between 1934 and 1939.
I was expecting a bit of a pot boiler, a story that was designed to entertain with no pretensions to any literary merit and one that would pay the bills, whet the reader’s appetite, and allow the writer to move on to the next project. What I had not anticipated was a book with a gripping beginning. Edward Carter, who has bought a large country house to retire to, holds a party which breaks up at around 3am. An hour later he is lured to the front door and brutally shot. There has been heavy snowfall overnight and there are tracks made by a pair of boots from a tree on the perimeter of the house to the front door and back and which then disappear. There is evidence that the murderer used a rope to climb a tree, but then the tracks come to a halt, prompting the wry thought that the culprit flew away into the ether.
Much of the available evidence is contained in the snow and as the temperature rises, Superintendent Warren, who is shortly to retire, and his nominated replacement, Inspector Head, are in a race to gather as much as they can before it disappears. This part of the book is well-written, and certainly grabbed this reader’s attention. Head then does a fine job in reconstructing the movements of the murderer and explaining what happened after they got into the tree.
After such a promising start it is a shame that the book goes downhill rapidly. There are two fundamental problems. The first is that Vivian is as much interested in developing the love match between Hugh Denham and Marguerite West as moving the story on. Denham has fallen under the woman’s spell and wants their engagement to be announced publicly as soon as possible, especially since Marguerite made public her support for him after the coroner’s hearing when the finger of suspicion was firmly pointed in his direction. Marguerite drags her feet and there is much anguish and soul searching between bouts of declarations of everlasting love.
Denham is caught in the horns of dilemma, his gentleman’s code preventing him from damaging the reputation of a lady even at the risk of withholding vital evidence and becoming an accessory after the fact, and ultimately pays a heavy price.
The second problem is Head himself. Having done all the hard work, he has not the wit to see who the culprit is, something as plain as a pikestaff to the reader. He goes off on a number of wild goose chases and the mystery is only resolved when some information is made available rather than through any detective work.
Carter has a shady past, a sort of 1930’s Harvey Weinstein, and his murder is a case of revenge for the sins of the past. The book becomes a bit of a thriller at the end with a car chase that ends in predictable disaster. The chase, dramatically written, highlights the constraints of motor car engineering at the time, a speed of fifty-five miles per hour putting a strain on the vehicle’s engineering and the nerves of those travelling in it.
The book has its moments, but after such a fine start the rest of the book is a bit of a let-down.