A review of Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville
The only Alan Melville book I had read before was Quick Curtain, which I enjoyed, and so I was keen to try Weekend at Thrackley, his debut novel, also published in 1934 and reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. I vaguely remember Melville from the sixties when he was what we would now call a TV and radio celeb. This is a delightful romp of a book.
It uses the classic locus for a murder mystery story, a country house to which its owner, Edwin Carson, invites a small but select group of disparate characters to attend a soiree. Carson is a bad egg, a jewel collector who has amassed a collection the envy of the world but which he keeps hidden in a well-fortified underground cellar with more than a suspicion that he is none too scrupulous about how he acquires them. The staff at the house, headed by the loathsome butler, Jacobson, are all male, all bruisers and add to the air of menace. It is the type of house to which, as Freddie Usher remarks, that you take a revolver to.
Five of the six guests invited possess desirable jewels. The odd one out is Jim Henderson who has barely a bean to his name. Carson claims that he knew Henderson’s father out in South Africa, having been in prison together, news to Jim. Jim is less keen to have more than a passing acquaintance with Carson, bit is loath to pass up a free weekend. He goes down to Thrackley with Usher, who has recently inherited the Usher diamonds, and as they approach the house, they knock a young lady off her bike. It turns out to be Mary, Carson’s daughter.
Instead of the promised tennis, fishing, and golf, there are rum goings on over the weekend, and inevitably some of the guests are relieved of their gems. The windows and doors are alarmed and the perimeter fencing and gates have a live electrical current running through them. Escape for the guests is impossible or, as Melville describes it, they have as much chance of leaving “as a drunk man with St Vitus’ dance has of getting to the top of Ben Nevis on a pair of antiquated rollerskates”. Only the completion of Carson’s fiendish plan and his departure will see their liberation. A combination of Jim’s courage, Freddie’s bluster, and Lady Stone’s spirit means that things do not go quite as Carson had planned.
This is not a classic murder mystery. There are deaths towards the end of the book, but there is no mystery about them. Carson’s motivations are also crystal clear. Indeed, the only mystery is why Jim had been invited to the party in the first place. This is revealed at the end in what is an unbelievable and disappointing resolution.
The plotting may not have the nuance that you might expect from a novel of this period and genre, but what it lacks in that direction it makes up in spades in humour. The dialogue, and some of the characters, seem to have been lifted from the pages of a PG Wodehouse novel. The characterization is well-observed and believable, the dialogue sharp and witty and the pages are peppered with bon mots and beautifully crafted and witty turns of phrase. It is a sheer delight to read, revelling in its own presposterousness, but written with enough spirit and elan to carry it all off brilliantly.
For the time Mary’s character is fascinating. She is not just the love interest that I expected at the beginning, but has an integral part to play in how events unfold and earns her billing as the woman who foiled a criminal mastermind. Melville allows the reader to compare and contrast her with Raoul, the archetypal stage bimbo, the latest sensation of the London stage and at whom Carson is tilting his metaphorical hat. Strong women will out and it is a pleasure to see a writer give one such an important role in their book.