Friday, 24 October 2014

Forgotten Books - Fourfingers

At a crime festival a while back, I bumped into a crime writing friend who told me that he enjoyed reading this blog, and in particular the Friday's Forgotten Books feature. "After all, Martin," he said, "you read these books so that we don't have to." I was amused by this, although naturally I hope that my accounts of at least some of the neglected books tickle your fancy enough to prompt you to give them a try.

I must admit I did wonder whether to read Fourfingers, by Lynn Brock (the pseudonym of Alister McAllister), which dates back to 1939. It's a very obscure book, and all I knew about it was that one Golden Age expert had described it as one of the worst books he'd read. But could it really be that bad? After all, I have a sneaking regard for Brock's work. Nightmare is intriguing and ambitious, and definitely worth reading, even if The Stoat is not really worth ferreting out. McAllister wrote plays and "straight" novels as well as detective fiction, and his prose was better than that of some of his contemporaries. His great failing was verbosity.

The story makes a striking start. One evening in the New Forest, a lorry driver and his mate discover a crashed car, and near to it, the bodies of two dead ponies. Inside the car is the body of a woman, and it emerges that she has been shot. The victim is a young woman called Waterlow, who is the author of a successful (but suppressed) novel, and the wife of a very wealthy man who has been confined to a mental hospital for the past three years. The local police call in the Yard, and this means Sergeant Venn, who apparently features in two other books by Brock. Venn rejoices in the unlikely nick-name Ut - short for "Unconsidered Trifle" - because of his insignificance. In other news, a prominent politician has gone missing - can this be connected with the case? Before long, Venn is hunting "Fourfingers", the name given to the mystery man whose fingerprints are found on a cigarette case in the car.

Brock offers some interesting snippets along the way. I'd like to have been told more about "the Lunacy Laws", which sound to have been pretty eccentric themselves, and I enjoyed the job title "Master in Lunacy". Venn, and his upper class sidekick DC Kither make a nicely contrasted detective duo. There is a dodgy medic, and Nazi sympathisers play an important part, reflecting the mood of the times. I feel that Brock was trying to do something original with the detective story, and this book combines detailed police work with the material of a thriller in quite a daring way. I've read plenty of less interesting Golden Age novels by more prominent names, including books written by Douglas and Margaret Cole, by E.R. Punshon (an extremely variable novelist), and even by the gifted Milward Kennedy, when writing as Evelyn Elder, a pseudonym he seemed to reserve for his biggest flops.

Unfortunately, once a criminal gang makes its appearance, Brock loses control of his complex plot - and I felt myself losing interest. In the course of a necessarily lengthy confession that sets out to make sense of everything that has been going on, one of the bad guys says: "I was very uneasy about the whole affair, which appeared to me utterly fantastic and impossible to carry through successfully." I'm afraid that, for all Brock's brave efforts to write something fresh, this sums up my feelings about his story-line. It's a pity, but this is one Brock novel likely to remain forgotten.


Bill Gottfried said...

Your reviews are always informative and challenging. And trustworthy. Have searched for and purchased those that you have enjoyed, when they are available. Keep on discovering new/old books for me. Regards, Bill Gottfried

Martin Edwards said...

Bill, knowing your love and knowledge of the genre, your kind words mean a lot. Thank you.