A review of Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting
Clifford Witting is one of those writers of detective fiction in its so-called Golden Age who has plummeted so far into obscurity that his novels are as difficult to find as hen’s teeth. Slowly, some are emerging as reprints. I thoroughly enjoyed Catt Out Of The Bag and when I stumbled across Murder in Blue, his debut novel, originally published in 1937, I had to read it. I was not disappointed.
The story is narrated by John Rutherford, who also appears in Catt Out of the Bag, a bookseller who stumbles across a body when out on a nocturnal walk. It turns out to be that of PC Johnson, the victim of a particularly brutal and prolonged assault. Across the lane from the body is a bicycle which Rutherford rides to the nearby Paulsfield police station to report the incident.
Inspector Charlton, who is Witting’s go-to police detective, heads up the investigation, but Rutherford with his penchant for amateur sleuthing provides assistance in a Watson-like role. The amiable bookseller is more involved in the events than he would like or realises, holding a vital piece of information, if only he knew it and could remember it. He survives three attempts on his life as the murderer seeks to ensure his silence.
There is, though, a second death to keep the body count ticking over, this one by a railway tunnel. Was this Johnson’s murderer who then found he could not live with himself or was it murder staged to look like a suicide? Charlton, described both as deep by his underlings and the Doctor because of his bedside manner while conducting interrogations, thinks that it is another murder and, more interestingly, the culprit is beginning to get sloppy.
The investigations reveal philandering policemen, much ado about bicycles, a second use for the convenient railway tunnel, a pond in which swim several red herrings, a shot, some watertight alibis, a piece of pink tissue paper, and warning messages. I have read too many of these stories to be taken in by an alibi that relies on someone hearing music playing and the culprit was a little too easy to identify.
What was more interesting was the howdunit of the murders. There was a certain amount of ingenuity deployed in ensuring that all the elements needed to pull off Johnson’s murder ran like clockwork. However, for those of us who like to join in the fun and work out all the elements of the crime, there were not enough clues in the narrative, the solution rather pulled out of the hat like a magician’s rabbit.
Witting’s plummet into obscurity may have been precipitated by flying too close to the glowing orb of jocularity, a cardinal sin for a genre that liked to take itself seriously. There is a rich vein of humour running through the story, both in the tone and character of his chosen narrator and in many of the scenes, especially those involving his shop assistant, George Stubbings, a self-confessed detective fiction fan and one never short of a theory or two about Johnson’s death. There is a markedly light and brisk feel to the narrative, told by a man who is slightly pompous but unaware of the fact.
In amongst all this Rutherford finds time to fall in love, with Molly, who has a mysterious uncle. The scene in which the uncle reveals his identity to the startled Rutherford is worth the cover price of the book on its own. Yes, the plot may be a little clunky and at times you can see the cog wheels turning, but it is gloriously funny and a delight to read. For me, that is enough.