Friday, 27 December 2013

Forgotten Book - Arrogant Alibi

Is there any Golden Age novelist whose work is as fascinating and yet as frustrating as C. Daly King's? If so, I've yet to find him or her. My Forgotten Book for today is Arrogant Alibi, first published in 1939, and it's a case in point. Nowadays it's incredibly scarce. It took me years to track it down, and when eventually I got hold of a poor copy, I fell on it with delight.

And there are some superb elements in the story. A terrible flood in the vicinity of the crime scene lends atmosphere, while Eygptology and a mysterious mummy and other ancient artefacts play a part in the story. There's lot of complex plot material concerning alibis and the apparent impossibility of certain events. There's a neat double twist ending. Michael Lord, the cop who stars in King's books, and his pal Dr L. Rees Pons are on the scene as well. What's not to like?

The famous critics and Golden Age fans Barzun and Taylor really liked this book Since they could be very harsh judges, that's quite something. But I'm afraid I didn't get on with Arrogant Alibi. It's one thing to have all the right ingredients for a whodunit, quite another to make best use of them. And I'm afraid I felt that this is the sort of book that justifies people who don't like Golden Age novels in saying that they are boring. King spends pages, for instance, on explaining a telephone system that is connected to the storyline. I'm afraid this went so far beyond pleasingly authentic detail as to cause me to lose the will to live. And the characters didn't come to life at all as far as I was concerned. I wasn't expecting Sophie Hannah or Nicci French, but this wasn't even Freeman Wills Crofts.

Because my hopes had been high, I ended the book feeling disappointed, but not surprised that Arrogant Alibi hasn't been reprinted, as far as I know, in the intervening years. Yet this experience simply reinforces my curiosity about King, and the way he could veer from excellence, for instance in Obelists Fly High and The Curious Mr Tarrant, to tedium (and Obelists En Route shows both his best and his worst sides.) Dorothy L. Sayers admired some of his work, and so do I. And if you are lucky enough to find a first edition of this book in a fine dust jacket, it will no doubt be a good investment, even if not the best whodunit you'll ever read!


J F Norris said...

I found a copy of this many years ago through sheer luck on back before anyone was "researching" the value of scarce detective novels. Luckily, I didn't pay much because I was immensely disappointed.

Even with the unusual Egyptology elements I disliked this book. I never finished it and ended up selling it at the Chicago Bouchercon in 2006...or 2005. Made a very nice profit on it. At least King is good for something if not a satisfying read!

Martin Edwards said...

John, I'm relieved you shared my reaction - I did wonder if I was missing something!