A review of Measure for Murder by Clifford Witting
Originally published in 1941, this is the fifth in Witting’s Inspector Harry Charlton series and shows greater ambition in its scope and format than the other novels of his that I have read whilst retaining his characteristic whimsical, tongue-in-cheek style. The story involves an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by the recently formed Lulverton Amateur Dramatics Society (LADS).
Witting has chosen to ape the format of a play, starting with a prologue in which Mrs Mudge, the cleaner, finds a body with a dagger stuck in its back, then two Acts, the first told in the first person, the manuscript of Walter Vaughan Tudor aka Turtle, the LADS’ hon secretary and a local estate agent, while the second reverts to the third person and details the investigations that lead to the solving of the murder. He also chooses to invoke the Muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia, who provide a running commentary as the story unfolds. More could have been made of this.
Tudor’s autobiography seems unnecessarily thorough and overly long, a little aimless, but in retrospect it provides the reader with much valuable information about the writer’s background, how LADS came to be formed and the tensions and petty jealousies amongst the society’s leading lights. It also provides the most vital clue to solving the murder, dropped while the residents of the guesthouse in which Tudor lives, gather round the wireless to hear Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany.
The relevance of the clue escaped me and after finishing the novel, I pondered on the dangers of dropping a contemporary reference into a work of fiction. While the author’s contemporary readers may have picked up its pertinence, for readers some eighty years or so after the event it was almost impossible to glean its significance. As a result, the identity of the murderer came as a bit of a surprise as did the sudden lurch in the book’s direction from being a cosy tale of petty jealousies, love rivalry, and money problems – the usual fare of a murder mystery – to a tale of fifth columnists, secret service agents, and the attempted escape of a collaborator to Nazi Germany. The book ends in thrilling style with a German plane landing in a neighbouring field and a gunfight, as far removed from a cosy tale about amateur dramatics as you could imagine.
This was not the only surprising lurch in Witting’s plot. The murdered victim turns out to be Tudor himself and his manuscript which formed the first part of the book is missing. Perhaps he was murdered because of what he had already written or, more likely, what he was about to disclose.
For all its inventiveness, the book for me was less enjoyable than the other two books by Witting that I have read, Murder in Blue and Catt out of the Bag. The sudden change of direction at the end seemed to be too abrupt, almost as if he decided to completely change the nature of his novel midway through writing it. There is a sense that with Britain now plunged into a desperate war and the cosiness of the old England long gone, Witting felt he had to make it more relevant.
It is saved, though, by Witting’s fine sense of humour and his acute observations and characterisations. He has an unerring ability to paint a pen picture of even the most minor of characters in just a few, well-chosen words. It was enjoyable enough but there were too many competing and contrasting themes to make the book the success it could have been.