Friday, 3 June 2011

Forgotten Book - Death in a Deck-Chair

I've written several times in this blog of my admiration for Anthony Berkeley, and I've also mentioned his contemporary and Detection Club colleague Milward Kennedy, whose approach to the genre reminds me of Berkeley's. Kennedy was another who liked to mix detection with humour, and he was also keen on experimentation.

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is a novel Kennedy published in 1930, Death in a Deck-Chair. It opens with a brief but very interesting introduction, in which Kennedy discusses the nature of detective fiction with a friend. He then describes how the conversation gave him the idea of taking the essential features of an actual case and reinventing it for fictional purposes, making use of his personal knowledge of police procedure, gained while working in Military Intelligence in the First World War.

Kennedy acknowledges at the outset that "complete realism" is out of the question – "is a novel pursued each possible clue to its final conclusion, it would run into volumes". This is the dilemma that succeeding generations of crime writers have grappled with. Unfortunately, it has to be said that this pioneering novel struggles to maintain a balance between plausibility and entertainment.

The body of the man who is found stabbed in a deck-chair at a seaside resort turns out to belong to a blackmailer who dies unmourned. The investigation moves slowly, and although Kennedy tries to compensate with humorous dialogue, for a modern reader the material simply isn't amusing enough to justify the lack of pace. In the latter stages of the book, things move more quickly, but overall the quality of the story does not remotely match that of books such as The Murder at the Vicarage, which was published in the same year. Yet Kennedy deserves a good deal of credit, I think, for his attempts to move the detective story forward from the straightforward puzzle. Unfortunately, in this book at least, the idea was stronger than the implementation.


aguja said...

What a splendid title! It both horrified and made me laugh. I am always fascinated by book titles ... thank you for bringing this one to light.

vegetableduck said...

I thought this was one of his best books and the pace didn't bother me (part of Kennedy's plan was to depict police investigation more realistically). But then I completely immersed myself in books from the period and may be an odd duck as a result. I was entertained.

I would agree it is not as good as The Murder at the Vicarage, but then Vicarage is one of the high points of the mystery genre. In modern terms, that's like saying of a book published in 1998, Book X say, it's not as good as "On Beulah Height." Well, probably not, but that's setting the very highest standard.

vegetableduck said...

Just to add: In any given year, whether 1930 or 2010, you're probably going to have four or five books that stand out as the very best of the year. But that doesn't mean that other books from those years aren't worth reading.

Unless we're just to deem that, contrary to modern books, most books from the Golden Age lack "pace" for the modern reader. But that's in the eye of the beholder. I'm a modern reader and I sometimes find the pace of P.D. James (with all those preliminary "this is your life" character sketches and those loving room descriptions) slow; yet I have enjoyed a lot of Golden Age books that no doubt would be considered slow by others. But then I am happy when a detective novel emphasizes material detection.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Aguja!
Curt, I think the lack of pace would probably be okay if the story were more gripping. It's an interesting book, though.